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Last year, more than four million gallons of water were wasted after water main breaks in the city of San Diego. NBC 7 Investigates reporter Mari Payton explains why breaks were so common, what’s taking so long to fix them and which area might be underwater next.
A year ago, Point Loma resident Kimberly Callahan awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of rushing water.
“I opened my back door and I got hit by a wave of water that knocked me almost on my butt,” Callahan said.
It was one of the city’s largest water main breaks documented last year in February 2013. A 16-inch cast-iron (concrete-lined) pipe, installed in 1943, burst in the night near the intersection of Nimitz Boulevard and Rosecrans Street.
Saving what they could, Callahan and her neighbors piled their soaked belongings into their vehicles and relocated to a local motel. Callahan was told the clean-up would take a few days, but it wasn’t until four months later that she was able to move home.
“It has turned my life upside down,” she said.
According to city records, it took a total of 63 job hours and cost $26,459 in supplies and labor to repair the water main near Callahan’s apartment. It was the second most expensive water main break in 2012 and 2013, measured by supplies and labor.
Not included in the $26,459 figure is the cost of water lost, the permanent street repair or the damages paid out by the city. Last month, the city settled a claim with Callahan for damages in the amount of more than $30,000 for the property she lost.
Since 2010, the city has paid out at least $3.9 million in damages related to water main breaks, according to the city’s risk management department.
In 2013 alone, taxpayers also shelled out $33,459 for the cost of water that spilled into the street as a result of main breaks. The city estimates 6.6 million gallons gushed out of ruptured mains in 2013. By comparison, that’s enough water for a San Diegan to use an average daily amount of water every day for the next 205 years, according to the city’s estimated average daily use of 88 gallons per day.
San Diego’s oldest and most vulnerable pipes - the cast irons installed roughly between 1900 and 1950 – long ago passed their service life. They are breaking at a pace faster than the city can replace them, according to city officials - an average of 105 breaks a year.
Last year, there were 89 water main breaks in San Diego – one of the lowest figures during the past 10 years. Director of Public Utilities Halla Razak said that figure is average compared to other cities of the same size and age of San Diego.
“The thing to remember is this is a very large system,” Razak said. “3,100 miles of pipelines and a lot of these pipelines are really old and they’ve exceeded their service life.”
The city is working to replace all of the cast iron pipes by 2017. There are 80 miles of the largest 16-inch cast iron pipes left. Last year, the department replaced 28 miles of cast-iron pipe - more than the minimum of 10 miles required by the state Department of Health Services to be replaced per year.
However, public utility officials say they cannot replace the aging infrastructure fast enough to prevent breaks. So far, in 2014, there have already been 10 water main breaks, according to Stan Medina, the deputy director of the Public Utilities Department.
Razak said the oldest pipes are not always the first to be replaced.
“There are several things that we look at when we move forward with the replacing of a pipe,” Razak said. “The age of the water line, the age of the sewer line, (and) the condition of the street are all factors that go into deciding what areas we are going to tackle first,” she said.
The Water Department also considers what other infrastructure work is going on in a neighborhood before deciding which pipes to replace next.
“It does not make sense to have the Streets Department pave that street and then two or three years later, we come in there and we trench through that new street replacing a water line or a waste water line,” Razak said. “That obviously is not the best use of ratepayer’s money.”
Razak admitted that this “grouping” approach to infrastructure replacements can leave some communities and neighborhoods behind others, and without underground utilities, paved roads or new pipes.
“The coordination that goes on between the different city departments is very good, but it can be better in coordinating the under-grounding and so on,” she said.
Sometimes, emergency repairs lead to replacing lines out of order.
“So for instance, if we have a break in a small location and we quickly look … we have all our systems in this GIS system, which is the Geographical Information System. So we quickly pick up the map and look at the pipeline,” Razak said. “How old is it? What is the condition? When a break happens, we not only fix that little portion, but we have an emergency project to replace the whole thing.”
Mapping It Out
NBC7 Investigates gathered data from the city water department and built an interactive map, which shows where breaks have happened and how much they cost to fix in 2012 and 2013. The team also examined data on where the cast-iron pipes are located, and confirmed their findings with the city.
In the city’s data, the areas of University Heights, Alvarado, Pacific Beach, Northwest Mesa and Redwood Village have the most cast-iron pipes that still need to be replaced. According to the city, the Alvarado and Northwest Mesa areas encompass the neighborhoods of Clairemont, Kearny Mesa, Linda Vista, Mid-City and North Park.
Specifically, Upas Street, 5th Avenue, Clairemont Mesa and Moreno Boulevards have the most miles of cast-iron pipe left to replace.
City officials emphasized that there are other small spurts of cast-iron pipes throughout the whole city.
Razak said a number of factors besides the age and condition of the pipe can cause it to break. Factors such as the geography, the pressure zones, and hot soils can all contribute to a pipe rupture.
“You cannot 100 percent pinpoint where the next break is going to be,” Razak said.
Still, Callahan, who lost many of her personal belongings, says she wished she would have known more about the pipes under her neighborhood when she signed her lease.
“Trust me, had I known that there was a risk of what I went through happening here, I would have never moved into this apartment,” she said. “And I would never move into another apartment in San Diego on a bottom floor if I had information that the water mains were 70-80 years old or even 10 years past their due date.”
The Next Wave
Even when the city replaces the last 80 miles of cast-iron pipe, it faces another major challenge in preventing water main breaks.
A type of pipe installed in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s called “asbestos cement” is starting to age past its service life as well. Breaks of that material type have started to surpass those of cast-iron pipes. Of the 10 water main breaks in 2014, eight of those broken pipes have been asbestos cement pipe, according to Stan Medina, the deputy director of the Public Utilities Department.
“The unfortunate story on the asbestos cement pipe is that we have over 2,000 miles of that pipe, so the replacement program for that is going to go on for many, many years,” Razak said. “The good thing is that we are already starting to look at that.”
By comparison, the city had only 200 miles of cast-iron pipe to replace in 2010, and it is still working to finish the job.
The city may not have started replacing its asbestos cement pipe soon enough to prevent future years of record-breaking numbers of water main ruptures; years such as 2010 when city crews had to respond to 130 emergency breaks.
Of the 89 water main breaks in 2013, more than half of those were asbestos cement pipe breaks, city data shows.
With a service life, of 75 years, most of the asbestos cement pipe will have aged past their useful life by 2025, according to NBC7 Investigates review of the pipe data.
“Yes, unfortunately, when you have such a large system and an old system and an aging system, that is an ongoing problem that you have to be planning for and keeping an eye on,” Razak said.