Sep 21, 2009

Los Angeles Engineers Puzzled by Increasing Water Pipe Failures

The rise in major blowouts in the city’s underground water system has no clear cause

City engineers in Los Angeles are puzzled over the rise in more “major blowouts” in water pipes in the last three months, the Los Angeles Times reported. Dozens of failures have flooded streets and created a sinkhole that almost swallowed a fire truck.

"It's strange," said William Robertson, general manager of the Bureau of Street Services, which repaves the roads after water pipes break. "The thing that is puzzling is they are so spread out … all over the city. You can't link them to anything."

The Department of Water and Power wants more money to fix the problem and upgrade the water system, the newspaper reported, and plans to raise water rates. The city’s water system has 7,200 miles of pipe and carries 600 million gal of water per day.

"This all requires a lot of money," Jim McDaniel, head of the city's water system, said.

The City Council would have to approve a rate hike, and some council members are not sure that is the best solution.

"They have to make a case for that," Councilwoman Jan Perry told the newspaper. "We have to get to the cause," she said, adding that she is concerned about the rise in pipe blowouts. "People can get hurt. Property can be lost."

The city’s unique system sends water over the Santa Monica Mountains using gravity. Parts of the system are now almost 100 years old, and many of the pipes are in poor condition.

Los Angeles actually has a lower rate of pipe failure per mile than many other big cities, the newspaper reported.

The increase in "major blowouts," where pavement is ruptured and the leak causes problems, is what is puzzling the city’s engineers.

McDaniel said that there have been 13 major blowout incidents in the first 14 days of September. By comparison, there were 13 in all of September 2006, 17 in September 2007 and 21 last year, the newspaper reported. July and August saw a similar jump, McDaniel said.

Last year, the City Council approved a water rate hike of about $2 per month per customer, but officials are hoping for an additional $1.4 billion to fund water main replacement and other improvements.

But officials would like an additional $1.4 billion to accelerate the replacement of water mains and to make other water quality improvements, the newspaper reported.

Additional rate increases for 2010 and 2011 have been proposed.