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City Council members demand answers, solutions to L.A. water main failures

Coldwater Canyon

Some L.A. City Council members are pressing the Department of Water and Power to quickly develop solutions amid a rash of major water main failures across the city.

Since Sept. 1, there have been  34 "major blowouts" in L.A.'s water system in which streets have flooded and pavement has buckled. 

Click here for a map of the major water main breaks in Los Angeles in September 2009.

The latest occurred Friday afternoon on Myra Avenue in Silver Lake. By contrast, the city had only 21 such ruptures in all of September 2008, 17 in September 2007 and 13 in September 2006.

“These things keep happening and I would like an explanation of what’s going on,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who sits on the committee that oversees the agency. “We have to come up with a solution.” 

Mike Eveloff, president of a homeowners association on the Westside, said he was struck by how much water has been wasted in the last few weeks. 

Observing two separate blowouts near his home over the summer, he said:  “Being asked to conserve water and being asked to only water on Mondays and Thursdays and then seeing more water than you could ever save flowing out into the street,  it’s frustrating for people to see.”

City engineers are trying to determine what's causing the water main bursts and have been taking soil samples, sending pipe pieces to labs for testing and performing a statistical analysis on each break.

But some experts said a prime suspect should be the city's recent decision to allow sprinklers to run only on Mondays and Thursdays.

They say that if more water flows through the system on those two days when people water their lawns and then pressure suddenly changes on other days, it could put added stress on already-aging pipes.

"As Sherlock Holmes used to say, when you eliminate everything, whatever is left is the reason.... If the pipe wasn't bad, and it [wasn't seismic activity] and it wasn't a funky contractor, well, what you've changed is this twice-a-week surge flow because of watering restrictions," said Richard Little, director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at USC.

Jean-Pierre Bardet, chairman of USC's civil engineering department, who began informally consulting with DWP officials Thursday, concurred that water rationing should be thoroughly investigated, noting that the system's age makes it susceptible to problems.

DWP officials said they are looking into the rationing, among numerous other possible causes. The rationing began in June, shortly before they noticed an uptick in major blowouts. There were 24 blowouts in July and 31 in August, increases from the same months last year.

Jim McDaniel, head of city water operations, refused to speculate on the cause, saying the inquiry is not complete.

Engineers also stressed that the city's 7,200 miles of pipe aren't actually leaking more than usual -- in fact, the number of leaks, about 1,400 a year, is down from the past and represents a lower rate per mile of pipe than in other cities. The problem is with bigger, more destructive leaks that send water shooting through streets.

"We have more breaks which actually have created major destruction," Bardet said.

The problem came to the DWP's attention Sept. 5, after a 5-foot-wide trunk line underneath Coldwater Canyon Avenue in Studio City exploded, sending a 10-foot gusher of water and mud into the air.

Homes and businesses were flooded, and the street, a major thoroughfare connecting the San Fernando Valley and the Westside, was closed for a week. That pipe was 95 years old, and officials suspected that age may have been a factor in its failure.

Less than 72 hours later, another, newer main burst in Valley Village, creating a sinkhole that swallowed half the firetruck that responded to the call about flooding. Firefighters crawled out the window and escaped to safety.

As officials analyzed those problems, they realized they had been seeing an increase in "major blowouts."

In the following days, there was at least one, and often two or three major breaks, snarling traffic, flooding streets and attracting media attention. On Thursday, a break temporarily closed Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Canoga Park

At first, officials believed one culprit was the age of the system. The DWP has a $1.3-billion program to replace old pipe, funded by a water rate increase of about $2 per customer that the council authorized last year.

But as the blowouts continued, department officials began reaching out for help, sending data to universities and other experts.

Officials said it remains possible that the blowouts are a statistical anomaly. But experts like Little are somewhat more skeptical. He said the timing of the blowouts -- coming soon after the city imposed a major change in water usage with the restrictions -- is highly curious. This marks the first time the city has restricted water use to two days a week.

"To me that is an 'aha' moment," he said.

Little doubts that seismic activity is to blame and said that if he were investigating, he would study the way the shifting pressure from the rationing is hitting the water mains.

But his USC colleague Bardet raised a question investigators will have to answer: If rationing is to blame, wouldn't other cities like Long Beach with similar programs be seeing a surge in blowouts?

--Jessica Garrison

Check out the Times' map of L.A.'s water main breaks.

Photo: Coldwater Canyon Avenue was littered with chunks of road after a trunk line burst Sept. 5, causing flooding several feet deep on some nearby streets. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times
Comments () | Archives (14)

Look at your "DWP" bill. Look at the "City" part of your "DWP" bill. Then compare how much you pay for fresh water delivery versus what you pay for sewer service charge to take away your effluent. See a problem there? The City also charges a 10% "utility" tax beyond what you pay for water and power. The City also transfers millions of dollars from DWP (excess funds) to the City's General Fund. The delivery pipes are old. Stop the transfer and use the money for pipe replacement and would somebody please disclose what the utility tax is used for?

This breakdown in the water mains, and sinkholes have been going on at a staggering rate since the 1994 Earthquake. The most famous on Hollywood Boulevard was blamed on subway construction and the MTA, but it was a leaking main that supplied the water, which caused the collapse, carefully hushed up by the Mayor at that time.

It is rumored that only around 84% of water imported into LA actually goes into a meter and comes out a tap. The rest is lost. This is reported to be one of the poorest delivery rates in the water scarce west. Drought impacted Las Vegas is shooting for a continous 95% plus delivery rate. This amount of loss, would refill Owens Lake with the water we take from the Owens River????

Of course the "Council" now wants to "get to the bottom to this" to paraphrase the Magic Christian. What a joke. In fact, the failure to properly manage and fund this agency is the direct fault of the Council and our Mayor's over the last twenty years. Refusal to raise water rates gradually to meet the need to rebuild the system is all the Council and Mayor's fault, all of them, for the last twenty years.

The water delivery system is now falling apart as a result of this political mismanagement. I sure hope we don't have another major quake soon???? Aren't these idiots on the Council, the same ones who said all of us had to cut back on water for the drought, except golf courses, that is? Idiots who avoid adult repsonibilities often are surprised that there are adult consequences..........

City of Los Angeles officials only calls these funds excess funds or surplus funds when they want to raid them! As Mr Miller says in last posting regarding fund transfers. As I stated to City Council June 8th and again September 15 the raiding of "specific use" earmarked funds has to stop.

If the cause of L.A.'s water main problem is the 2 day watering restriction why not adopt the system used in the late 70's for gas consumption? Even numbered addresses water on Mondays & Thursdays; odd numbers Wednesdays & Saturdays; commercial properties Tuesdays & Fridays. If it was adopted immediately maybe we could stave off more problems, & it would be a risk free way of testing the view of Mr Little.

DWP funds haven't been transferred lately because the mismanagement of DWP has caused several large court judgements.

What's amazing is that the City is allowing a commercial feature film production from Warner Brothers to use public water for extensive rainmaking equipment Downtown at Seventh and Spring while millions of DWP users are being curtailed.

Makes one wonder if there is a water shortage or DWP and the Mayor are just trying to justify some investment in underground water storage with a former employer of the Mayor's?

No one ever makes money on such large, long term land deals, do they?

The answer is simple: Stop transferring excess revenues to the city general fund and use the money for infrastructure. Fix the pension and labor contracts so that we don't defer the issues to another Mayor or force the city to go bankrupt.
Basically----FIX THE CITY

"As Sherlock Holmes used to say, when you eliminate everything, whatever is left is the reason.... If the pipe wasn't bad, and it [wasn't seismic activity] and it wasn't a funky contractor, well, what you've changed is this twice-a-week surge flow because of watering restrictions," said Richard Little, director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at USC.

Rather arrogant of Mr. Little to assume that you HAVE eliminated everything else. Scratch slightly and you will find that you have a City Council (like many) that are afraid to raise water rates for the utility. The City tried to pawn off a 92 year old 68" pipe breakage as "earlier than we would have expected". Mr. Littel it is also said that if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. Your system is old, VERY OLD, and it is not being replaced in a timely manner because Council is afraid of an electorate that will "be angry' if they have to pay any more taxes (they are NOT Taxes, but users fees). It is very simple, take the replacement value of the full system of major and local water distribution lines, and reservoirs and then divide by about 50 to 65 years (I'd use 50, but that's the conservatism in me.). That product of that simple calculation is the amount the City Utility should be putting aside for replacements or actively replacing ANNUALLY. I would be willing to wager that the City is not replacing but than maybe 10% of this required amount, hedging a bet on just how long a pipe will last. Unfunded replacement costs are going to keep increasing and they will hit a tipping point and then the City will have to turn to the Federal government for help, at the same time that many of the country's other cities will be doing the same. Infrastructure is what has made this a great country. However, people are so cheap and stingy that they are willing to live off of the investments of others in the past that financed the original system. The City can embark on a logical, scheduled replacement at an additional cost, or just hope that each pipe segment outlasts its estimated lifetime and just continued to fix then as they break. That as someone else mentioned, will waste water. But seriously, you have already been taken, you have only been asked to conserve, so some other developer can build more units (requiring water) and make money, off of you. Ha.

Water utilities, especially those owned by public agencies, cannot simply take "excess" water rate collections, and I suspect they don't. They can transfer a portion of the costs of the administration, central management, H.R. clerk, attorney, etc. And it has to be calculated in an A-87 plan. Look for it. Everything that gets transferred to the General Fund must be detailed and explained in the annual water budget and annual report. Look for it. No magic answers, more resources (rates) need to be put into replacement. Look for the crazies that think you can get something for nothing come out of the woodworks. Sorry, but a well-functioning and reliable water system costs more money than the users care to pay. Things are tough, but, the leave to someone else to pay for attitude won't work. Consider your life without adequate water in this desert, and its is a desert.

I don't understand why people are following Monday and Thursday only watering restriction. DWP only has 32 inspectors, chances of them catching you is almost zero. I will not let my grass die, regardless how city tells me i should conserve.

Both the city and county of Los Angeles are rapidly going bankrupt.

And Jeff's selfish behavior is one of the myriad reasons we have a water shortage to begin with. There are millions just like Jeff out there who "refuse to let my grass die" rather than conserve water for the future. These people would rather let this precious and FINITE resource go toward their grass rather than for future human consumption. These are probably the same people who don't care whether everyone has access to health care or not. Which is a moot issue when the Earth runs out of fresh water.

Didnt anyone notice that about 11 months ago the water pressure in our homes became more powerful. I wonder how? Hmm more pressure more water running thru the pipes and more money to be made!!!!!! They know what they are doing.

I trouble shoot problems for the City of Tucson Water Dept. I would start by placing data loggers in the area, say one logger close to every third break area, so install 11 data loggers and record two days of pressure readings. Then I would clean every air release valve in that area, we found ours to be in poor condition after many years of service.

I would also review your system and see if you have adequate hydropneumatic tanks in this area. We have two 5000 gallon pressure discharge/suction tanks at every booster station. And well sites which deliver directly into the pressure zone, have discharge tanks only. This protects our 75 year old system fairly well. If you have any PRV's (pressure reducing valve) stations, make sure to have the diaphrams replaced every 5-7 years before a rupture. Just some ideas.
Dan Denman, Project Manager

~"At first, officials believed one culprit was the age of the system. The DWP has a $1.3-billion program to replace old pipe, funded by a water rate increase of about $2 per customer that the council authorized last year."

The program was funded and authorized last year; has it yet been implemented? If not, why? How long will the process take, and if it has begun, how far into the process are we?


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