Broken water main pipes

by Kelly Thornton | inewsource

During a water main break at Famosa Slough, a wetland area between Ocean Beach and the San Diego Sports Arena, it took city crews six hours to find a functioning valve to shut off water to the burst pipe.

Jim Peugh, who lives in the area and chairs a watchdog committee that oversees water rates, couldn’t believe it.

“There were literally two pickup trucks driving around trying to find one valve that would turn off the break,” he said.

During the break in September, 2006, workers scrambled back and forth between diagrams and the street, checking valve locations before finding one that worked. In the meantime, two million gallons of water spewed into the slough.

“All that time soil was gushing up from under the street into the slough and a bank was eroding into the slough from the flow and the workers were working like crazy,” Peugh said. “They would look at diagrams, rush out to try a valve to see if they could cut it off, that valve wouldn’t work. They’d come back, look at the diagrams again, talk about it, go out and try more valves and this went on and on.”

Peugh’s story illustrates a citywide concern: Tens of thousands of valves, which shut down water in cases of leaks or breaks and turn it on to douse fires, are not maintained according to national recommendations which say: “Inspections should be made of each valve on a regularly scheduled basis (annually if possible) and at more frequent intervals for valves with a 16-inch diameter and larger or valves deemed critical.” Valves are on fire hydrants and under caps in the street.

Peugh’s committee, the Independent Rates Oversight Committee, wants a full accounting.

“We really need to investigate whether a more rigorous plan of testing and maintaining valves would actually cost us less and would certainly provide a lot better service than we get now,” Peugh said.

The city auditor’s office is conducting the investigation and expects to release its findings in September.

The auditor already found in a preliminary risk assessment that the city checks water valves with partial turns only once every five years because of staffing limitations and cost. National recommendations set by the American Water Works Association, an industry group, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, call for valves to be opened and closed all the way annually in order to make sure they work.

In San Diego, the system’s performance determines how often the valves should be inspected, said Jim Fisher, assistant director in the Public Utilities department. “Once every five years seems to work. It doesn’t over-expend our resources to keep them operable. We’re trying to be cost efficient.”

During inspections, city crews turn valves slightly, rather than full turns as recommended, to avoid changing pressure and disrupting water service, Fisher said.
Most valves can be found beneath caps in the street that look like small manhole covers. When teams inspect valves, they divert traffic, pull off the cover, clean around the valve, inspect it for leaks, exercise the valve and make sure it works. The city assigns about 18 workers to inspect valves and perform other system maintenance.

Water mains in San Diego are breaking at a pace of more than 100 a year, according to an analysis of city data by inewsource, a journalism non-profit and KPBS media partner. According to data obtained in February, those breaks — plus tens of thousands of leaks — have sent at least 360 million gallons of water rushing or seeping into streets, homes and businesses since 2004.

City Auditor Eduardo Luna agreed with IROC in a September, 2010 risk assessment that it’s time for a look at the valve maintenance schedule, considering the number of main breaks.

“The City’s water distribution has vulnerabilities if it does not know which valves are truly operational and cannot shut off valves when needed,” a preliminary reportfrom Luna said.

As of February, the city had replaced about 51 miles of the most rupture-prone cast iron pipes with PVC pipe since 2007, with 129 miles to go by 2017. It has a complicated system for deciding which neighborhoods should have priority. A valve audit might help in those decisions.

“They ought to know the condition of the valves,” Peugh said, “not only so they can shut down water quickly in an emergency, but so the information can be factored into decisions on what neighborhoods need (pipeline) replacements.”

Fisher downplayed the valve issue during a wide-ranging interview earlier this year about water system maintenance. He estimated a failure rate of less than 1 percent of those inspected fail.

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