PUC releases water main break findings

December 27, 2011 6:28:22 PM PST
Answers are beginning to emerge on the cause of a water main break in South San Francisco. A brand-new pipeline sent water shooting into the air damaging homes in November.

The pipeline has now been repaired. What was a simple fix actually became a very complex problem, almost short of a disaster. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission admits they blew it.

"There is no excuse. It was human error that caused it," said SFPUC assistant general manager Steve Ritchie.

It was quite a spectacle on Nov. 25 and firefighters called it the mother of all water main breaks. It sent a geyser into the sky 60 feet, caused a mudslide, flooding and damage to homes and cars below. Ritchie said the problem was a design flaw where a new pipe and existing pipe connected.

"The coupling needed to have a restraint to make sure that it couldn't move around and that was what was missing in this particular design. There was no restraint designed into it," said Ritchie.

The eruption caused the evacuation of the neighborhood and although it has been repaired and cleaned up, there are still issues with homeowners. Clarita Calindas still has mud in her backyard and cracks along the foundation of her house.

"There was flooding all the way over here, one of my rooms downstairs was... water came into it, so they had to fix it. What they haven't done so far is on the outside," said Calindas.

It seems this isn't the only place that could have faced a water disaster. The SFPUC is spending $4.6 billion to improve the water system. This was just one of 35 locations with planned similar connections.

"We found of those 35, 28 were designed properly. We have found seven, this is one of those, that was not designed properly and we've instituted design changes to make sure those are corrected," said Ritchie.

None of those has been installed. He says they are drawing up new standards for design and response so the day after Thanksgiving nightmare never happens again.

It took about three hours to shut off the system and end the geyser. The SFPUC admits there were some communication problems as well and they're working on those. As far as the exterior damage, they'll be settling with the homeowners in January.

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