Leaky pipes sign of big problems to come

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- It's easy to take for granted that water will when the tap is turned, but many of the pipes that bring water Bay Area homes were put in generations ago and they need to be replaced. It's a nationwide, as well as local problem.

A water main break in San Carlos last week sent water shooting into the sky. The leak was so bad a nearby school closed. In San Francisco, recent storms were blamed for a sinkhole that opened up. That leak left many residents without water.

Both disasters are examples of the increasing vulnerability of the aging water supply.

An East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) crew in Piedmont was responding to reports of water trickling down the street.

Walter Nobrega, with EBMUD, found one pipe that was installed in the twenties, he said.

Nobrega said it's not unusual to see pipes that old in the Bay Area. Many of the region's water and sewer pipes were installed prior to 1950.

"Old pipes last for a certain amount of time and at some point you have to replace those pipes and were coming up on that timeline," said Nobrega.

It doesn't look like much now, but the trickle down the street takes a full crew of utility workers hours to fix.

First they try to isolate the leak by drilling holes and then using sensitive equipment to listen to the water in the pipe. They narrow it down a small section of roadway to excavate and then bring in a back-hoe to uncover the leak.

One leak they found was caused by ground movement, so they'll put a stainless steel band-aid on it and cover it up.

This is a scene that can be repeated daily, sometimes multiple times. On average, EBMUD repairs 850 water main breaks a year on 4,200 miles of water mains.

And that's just one water agency.

Each year the American Cociety of Civil Engineers issues a report card on the nation's infrastructure. Nationwide the grade was "D+." California got a "C" partly because of work being done in the Bay Area on the Hetch Hetchy water system. That system supplies water to more than 2 million customers. The repairs will cost taxpayers $4.6 billion.

That's just pennies compared to what would be needed nationwide.

Greg DiLoreto is with the American Society of Civil Engineers. He said, "We would need to spend an additional $84 billion between now and 2020 if we wanted to bring them into a good condition."

He says the need is great and that "some water systems in California loose about 200 billion gallons of water to leaks every year.

The problem will only get worse.

"There are no leaks that get better, they always stay constant, or they get worse," Nobrega.

At its current rate, it would take EBMUD 400 years to replace the current water infrastructure. The agency is now exploring ways to speed that up with a hundred year plan. That of course will cost money. Ratepayers will ultimately have to decide if they will they pay for it now, or risk paying a bigger price later.

Water infrastructure seems to always be the last thing on people's minds, even the federal government. When it was doling out money under the federal stimulus package for major improvements, water projects received just $5 billion of the $800 billion handed out.

Written and Produced by Ken Miguel
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