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Cost Of Main Breaks, Water Loss Add Up For San Diego

Above: San Diego has paid out at least $10 million to settle claims and pay contractors for repairs to private property that was damaged by water main breaks during the past eight years. More than $350,000 of that was to house people forced from their homes by the breaks.

Aired 2/27/12 on KPBS News.

As significant water delivery lines are nearing the end of their service life across San Diego, mains are breaking at a pace of more than 100 a year, according to an analysis of city data by Investigative Newsource,

When Alejandro Gonzalez woke to the sound of water in late December 2010, he rushed to the window to find a pipe had burst and water was gushing around his Mount Hope home.

He couldn’t believe it. The same section of main had ruptured three weeks earlier, flooding his neighbor’s home. Gonzalez and his wife packed up to leave. The next day, the cast iron pipe broke a third time.

“We had to spend Christmas in the hotel with my kid,” he said. “So, it was really bad, that time of year for us.” The Gonzales family spent two weeks in that hotel — paid for by the city of San Diego.

Special Feature Map it! Water Main Breaks by Neighborhood

We mapped all the water main breaks in the city since 2004. You can see some clusters, where the same stretch of pipe ruptured many times. Zero in on your street and see details of each break.

As significant delivery lines are nearing the end of their service life across San Diego, mains are breaking at a pace of more than 100 a year, according to an analysis of city data by Investigative Newsource, a journalism non-profit based at San Diego State University. Those breaks plus tens of thousands of leaks have sent an estimated 360 million gallons of water rushing or seeping into streets, homes and businesses since 2004.

And it’s not just water that’s been lost.

San Diego has paid out at least $10 million to settle claims and pay contractors for repairs to private property that was damaged by water main breaks during the past eight years. More than $350,000 of that was to house people forced from their homes by the breaks.

A three-month examination by Newsource of water main breaks, their locations and costs and the city’s practices found some streets, mostly in older neighborhoods, have suffered more than half a dozen water main breaks in the past eight years. The city auditor, in a report last September, said the city does not have a precise accounting of the condition of its water pipes, and because inspecting lines is so expensive “it is generally considered to be more cost-effective to simply fix lines when they break.”

Roger Bailey, the city’s public utilities director, defends the water department’s record, given the vast delivery grid.

“I think the numbers we have in our system are not bad,” he said, “but we still need to make sure it doesn’t get worse and hopefully improve those numbers.”

Newsource’s data analysis showed about a dozen clusters of five or more main breaks on single streets in the past eight years. Jim Fisher, assistant director of Public Utilities, said situations like those are rare, but when they do happen, the city can expedite work to replace the failing mains.

The biggest and costliest water main break over the past eight years was on Polk Street in North Park on March 1, 2010. An estimated 24 million gallons flooded from a cast iron pipe into the street and surrounding homes. In all, the city paid about $1.4 million to make repairs, house people and settle property claims related to the main break.

The $10 million total paid out in claims by the city since 2004 doesn’t include the cost of city crews who shut off valves and patch or replace broken mains. The city said it doesn’t track that expense.

The auditor reported that the city has inspected about 5 1/2 of its 505 miles of large transmission pipelines since 2005, and none of its 2,958-mile network of smaller distribution pipelines. As a result, the city doesn’t know exactly where the biggest problems are.

“By not fully assessing the conditions of its assets, the department will not have information on water pipes that are at high risk for failure and cannot make informed decisions regarding capital needs for these assets,” city auditors wrote.

While the report acknowledged that physically assessing thousands of miles of underground pipes is unrealistic, auditors called for a periodic assessment, aided by software, to serve as a roadmap for which sections to replace first.

“I think it’s important to understand that most of our assets are buried and you can’t see them,”said assistant director Fisher. “Unlike a street. If you want to assess the condition of a street, you can walk the street or drive the street.”

“Unaccounted For” Water

The city is under mandate from the state Department of Public Health to replace at least 10 miles of cast-iron water main per year, and that department says it is meeting its requirements.

The city has replaced about 51 miles of the most rupture-prone cast iron pipes with PVC pipe since 2007, with 129 miles to go by 2017.

The city says its replacement schedule is fine and points out that the city’s water loss is a tiny percentage of the billions of gallons it successfully delivers to customers every year.

“We have an aggressive and successful approach to maintaining the city’s water infrastructure,” said Alex Roth, spokesman for the mayor.

He noted San Diego’s water-loss rate was 9.3% for the last fiscal year, lower than the national average of 14 percent for “unaccounted for” water, which is water that leaves the distribution system but doesn’t make it to customers. According to a city report, the rate for Phoenix was 5 percent; Philadelphia 31 percent; San Francisco was 9 percent.

Comments

Avatar for user 'dorndiego'

dorndiego | February 27, 2012 at 9:41 a.m. ― 2 years, 7 months ago

KPBS and Newssource, these days, are proving to be the only local organizations to rise up to the challenge of delivering real reporting and protecting the public's interest at a time when most for-profits have been firing staff and picking the low-hanging fruit. A sewer story in the UT? Literally, only if it's going to be connected to the Convention Center/Charger Stadium.

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Avatar for user 'gkail'

gkail | February 27, 2012 at 10:08 a.m. ― 2 years, 7 months ago

The American Water Works Association issued a big water infrastructure report today that gives added perspective. It's at www.awwa.org/infrastructure

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Avatar for user 'mccolgan55'

mccolgan55 | March 4, 2012 at 11:56 a.m. ― 2 years, 7 months ago

Anybody else notice that the drier the city the better they seem to be able to track their water? Maybe there is something to be said for living in a semi-desert area. That said, I refer back to the "Public Utilities Flush With Cash But Behind On Projects" story. Get going on the projects = fewer breaks = lower cost. Seems simple to me!

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