Key Points
1. Water mains in San Diego broke 306 times from January 2012 through September 2015, wasting an estimated 35 million gallons of water.
2. San Diego has paid out nearly $9.8 million in break-related claims and cleanup fees.
3. Nearly three of every five breaks occurred in asbestos cement pipes whose replacement the city has only recently begun to address.

Katherine LeMoine first became aware something was wrong at 6:30 that morning in May when her housemate, heading out the door to work, popped back in to tell her water was coming out of the asphalt across the street.

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[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]Water main breaks disrupt San Diegans’ lives, cost the city money and waste precious water during a drought. The solution is timely replacement of aging pipes.[/box][/one_half]

She poked her head out the front door of her house.

And then she saw.

“I (had) thought it was a little bit of water, you know? It was like a river came,” LeMoine said.

The source of the river was an 8-inch asbestos cement water main underneath Beta Street in southeastern San Diego’s Southcrest neighborhood.

The main break would eventually spill more than 380,000 gallons of water into the street, leave LeMoine and her neighbors without running water for more than a day (the city sent a water wagon several hours after the break) and cost the city more than $27,000 in damage claims and contractor cleanup fees.

An inewsource analysis of data from San Diego’s Public Utilities Department shows the break that so disrupted the lives of LeMoine and her neighbors was one of 306 to hit city water mains from 2012 through the end of September, wasting an estimated 35.3 million gallons of water in the midst of a historic drought.

Click here for an interactive map of water main breaks in San Diego.

At the same time, data from the city’s Risk Management Department shows that San Diego has paid out almost $9.8 million in claims related to the breaks. That figure includes money spent compensating residents for damage to property or housing residents in hotels after their homes were flooded, money paid to private contractors who cleaned up after breaks and costs incurred in the course of investigating damage claims and defending against lawsuits.

What’s more, the majority of breaks are no longer occurring in the cast iron pipes whose replacement has for years been a city priority. Rather, three of every five breaks from 2012 through the end of September have occurred in asbestos cement pipes whose replacement the city has only recently begun to address.

Most water loss from cast iron mains

Stan Griffith, deputy director of the San Diego Public Utilities Department, agreed that breaks in asbestos cement pipes were a growing problem.

“The asbestos cement mains are beginning to break in increasing numbers,” Griffith said.

Even so, he said the department’s focus must remain elsewhere, in part because of a 1994 state order that requires the city to replace 10 miles of cast iron pipes each year.

“It is unavoidable — if now most of your system is AC — that most of your breaks will be AC.”-Don Billings, former vice chairman of the Independent Rates Oversight Committee

“At this point, the priority is replacing the cast iron mains,” Griffith said, adding that the city has been upgrading 30 miles of those mains annually.

Over the past three years, the city has replaced about 20 miles of asbestos cement mains.

A previous inewsource analysis of water main breaks from 2004 through 2011 found that 52 percent of them occurred in cast iron mains. Spills from those breaks still accounted for just over half the 35 million gallons of water lost since 2012 (the oldest main to experience a break was a cast iron pipe installed in 1905). But the water loss from asbestos cement breaks is adding up.

In its 2014 annual report, San Diego’s Independent Rates Oversight Committee — a panel of citizens — specifically identified replacing asbestos cement pipes as a high priority, stating “an average of 50 miles per year of asbestos/concrete pipe were installed in San Diego from 1950 to 1980. Much of that pipe will exceed its service life during the time we will be paying for the Pure Water San Diego Program,” referring to a recently approved program to purify wastewater so as to make it safe for drinking.

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Don Billings, the committee’s vice chairman at the time of that report, wasn’t surprised that breaks in asbestos cement mains now make up the majority of breaks.

“In terms of where the breaks are, you’re pretty much done replacing the old stuff — the clay and the cast iron, especially — and now your system is much more AC pipe and the newer plastic pipe,” Billings said. “It is unavoidable — if now most of your system is AC — that most of your breaks will be AC.”

Billings said the city has done a good job of forecasting the increased risk from breaks in asbestos cement pipes but urged Public Utilities to move as aggressively as possible to replace the mains.

“Our view is, given how much AC pipe is in the system, if you have an opportunity to accelerate the replacement schedule, then by all means do so because the number of miles replaced per year is not enough to replace all pipes within their expected useful life,” Billings said.

Making the change to PVC

But for the moment, it’s the cast iron mains that make up most of what’s coming out of the ground.

On a drizzly morning last month, a little more than two miles of soon-to-be-excavated pipe sat exposed in trenches on 60th Street south of El Cajon Boulevard.

As part of a larger project begun in May, a city-contracted work crew was busy taking out 11,000 feet of cast iron water mains installed in the 1950s. The crew was replacing the old pipe with a new PVC main.

Austin Cameron, president of TC Construction, was on hand at the job site. He said his crew was about a third of the way finished with the project. Noting that his company handles “a good chunk” of the city’s water and sewer replacement work, he observed, “There’s a lot of it that needs to be done.”

A crew from TC Construction works on replacing cast iron pipes on 60th Street south of El Cajon Boulevard on Oct. 16, 2015. Megan Wood, inewsource.

Mónica Muñoz, a spokeswoman for the city, said the project should be done toward the end of 2016. The work costs about $8.5 million and includes replacing the water and sewer mains and individual service lines connecting homes to the pipes, repaving the streets, replacing fire hydrants and installing accessibility curb ramps on sidewalks.

Similar scenes featuring asbestos cement mains should become more frequent soon.

A consultant recently completed a condition assessment of the city’s 2,200 miles of asbestos cement mains — a recommendation of the oversight committee. Once the consultant identifies the mains that have the highest risk of breaking, Griffith at Public Utilities said his agency would “move aggressively to replace those as well.”

Beta Street’s trouble with water mains

Almost five months after the break by Katherine LeMoine’s home, she sat at her kitchen table preparing enchiladas for a function at her church.

The panic in her voice was still audible as she recalled the sight of water rapidly closing in on the house she has owned for 30 years.

“You know I just got really upset because it was just coming on my property and it just kept — you know I’m low level to the ground and I was like ‘OK, it’s gonna, it’s gonna flood, it’s already flooding the yard,” LeMoine said.

By the time a Public Utilities crew shut the water off, some 380,000 gallons had spilled onto the street. The front yard, driveway, garage and backyard of the property were flooded.

“All that asphalt and all that just sunk,” LeMoine said. “So it was a big — I mean you could have had a swimming pool out there.”

Katherine LeMoine stands outside her home holding her niece on Oct. 8, 2015. Megan Wood, inewsource.

City records show the asbestos cement main on Beta Street broke twice before — in 2008 and again last year. But the city, focused on replacing the older break-prone cast iron mains, opted not to replace it.

“You raised our sewer hikes and our water rates back then but why are we having all these breaks now?”-Katherine LeMoine, San Diego resident

Griffith said the pipe on Beta Street would likely be among the first to be replaced when Public Utilities turns its focus to the asbestos cement pipes.

“Now that we’ve completed or will be completing the condition assessment, again, we will pivot to the AC mains — and my expectation is with the history on this particular main, it is one of the ones that we will probably replace probably first, in the early going,” Griffith said.

In its annual report, the oversight committee warned that the cost of main breaks was more than just financial.

“Pipe breaks lose more than water; they lose public support for the investments needed to reduce pipe breaks,” the committee said.

LeMoine, who said repeated water and sewer rate hikes have left her paying $170 to $200 every month, was particularly bothered by the fact that all three of the breaks happened at a time when water rates have been going up to fund pipe replacement and maintain the water system.

“You raised our sewer hikes and our water rates back then but why are we having all these breaks now?” she said.

Joe Yerardi is a freelance data journalist for inewsource, where he worked between 2013 and 2016 as an investigative reporter and data specialist. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email