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Balboa Park's Aging Plumbing Threatens Museums' Collections

A fountain in front of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
Katie Schoolov
A fountain in front of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
Balboa Park's Aging Plumbing Threatens Museums' Collections
Balboa Park is more than 100 years old and so is some of its plumbing, and that has some folks who work in the park worried.

Anything you want to know about the history of San Diego is kept in a basement in Balboa Park. The San Diego History Center’s archives are kept below ground in the Casa de Balboa, one of the older buildings in the park.

The center’s collection includes more than 2 million photographs in addition to rare documents. Archivist Jane Kenealy holds one of those documents in her hands: a small black leather book. It’s one of Kate Sessions’ diaries, the woman known as the “Mother of Balboa Park.”

“Everyone knows Kate Sessions as the old woman with the pulled back hair, slightly eccentric,” Kenealy said. “But these are from when she was a young girl, so they are fascinating reading.”


There are people who work in the park who think collections like the History Center’s are in danger.

“If we had a major flood here, the history of San Diego would be washed away,” said Charlotte Cagan, the executive director at the History Center. She’s worried that one of the 100-year-old underground water pipes might break. Cagan said they’ve already had four or five minor floods.

“And several of them have damaged collections, no question,” Cagan said.

The center has insurance, but historic items can’t be replaced. A water main break could cause serious damage. A complete upgrade to that system would cost millions. The city doesn’t have the money. And Cagan said it’s hard to get the public or a donor excited about plumbing.

“Deferred maintenance and infrastructure issues are not very sexy,” Cagan said.


Hard to argue with that, but they are important.

No one seems to have a firm grasp on what all needs fixing in the park. Some say there is $300 million in deferred maintenance, everything from chipping paint to leaking roofs. Others say it’s more like $500 million. The park’s landlord is the city of San Diego. A spokesman said they’re putting together an updated list of all the deferred maintenance. It will come out at the end of the year.

One man has made it his business to know exactly what needs fixing in the water main system.

Matt Rahn, an environmental scientist and professor at San Diego State University, and his students are mapping the water pipes and valves delivering water into Balboa Park. The Friends of Balboa Park are funding the project.

“There are projects that I’ll admit are a little more charismatic than talking about pipes at Balboa Park,” Rahn said.

Rahn may not have infrastructure jokes to keep people riveted by water delivery systems, but he does have technology. GPS is allowing Rahn and his students to develop an app that will help city workers locate weak points in the park’s water points.

“And not just the weak points, but to be able to stand anywhere in the park at a broken water main and to be able to look at a map of Google Earth in real time and say 'this is where the closest three valves are to isolate that piece of pipe,'” Rahn said.

Once a break is isolated, the city won’t have to turn off water to the entire park.

Rahn said parks like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park have the same infrastructure issues. And if you compare Balboa Park to some European parks, that’s a whole other level of rusty pipe.

“We talk about our city parks being 100 years old,” Rahn said. “Some other places I’ve been, you’re talking hundreds of years old, and that’s difficult to deal with.”

But Rahn said museum administrators in Balboa Park should still be concerned.

He doesn’t have to explain that to the History Center’s Cagan. To her, 100-year-old pipes mean trouble.

“So, of course it’s going to break at some point,” Cagan said. “And we better deal with it now, because otherwise these collections are at risk on a daily basis.”

Balboa Park's Aging Plumbing Threatens Museums' Collections