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LA water mains: Which to fix first before another bursts?

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A water main break closes Sunset Boulevard from Hilgard to Veteran on Tuesday, July 29, 2014.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
A water main break closes Sunset Boulevard from Hilgard to Veteran on Tuesday, July 29, 2014.

It is no question that parts of the city's water distribution system are badly in need of a repair, in the wake of significant bursts. But how to prioritize? Senior Assistant General Manager of the LADWP Water System joins Take Two.

Since that geyser erupted at UCLA in July, there have been a number of significant water main breaks in Los Angeles.

Most recently, a water main ruptured at the intersection of Highland and Santa Monica Boulevard, flooding the street.

It was fixed but then busted in another spot.

It is no question that parts of the city's water distribution system are badly in need of a repair.

But how to prioritize?

For more, Take Two is joined by Martin Adams, Senior Assistant General Manager of the LADWP Water System. 


I heard a statistic from you that LA averages three water leaks a day. These aren't all big leaks, but isn't that a lot?

The three a day turns out to be not that much. We're probably about only 60 percent of the national average for water main breaks. But in a city the size of LA where we have enough pipe that stretches from here to NY and back—about 7,000 miles of pipe in the street—having that amount of leaks per day is really a pretty good record.

Do you get time to fix the three leaks per day?

We have crews that repair leaks and we don't let them run any longer than we have to and we have a priority order. The ones that are big are the ones that make the news but there's a lot of small ones that we repair just as well.

The pipe that broke about a week ago (Highland and Santa Monica) was installed in the 1920s, correct?

Yes, it was getting close to 100 years old; 1920s-era pipe. The pipes in that era, there are different ways they were manufactured back then and insulation was different. So a lot of the pipes in that era were subject to a lot more corrosion. Certain parts of town we have the pipes in a hot soil environment and we're starting to see the age and corrosion take effect on that length of the pipe's life.

How does LA's system rank with other big cities?

Overall, in spite of what we see with water main breaks and the attention to it, our track record is pretty good. We did a detailed study by a nationally accepted method for how tight our system is—how many leaks we have and how much water we lose—and we're sitting at about half of where the norm would be for the water industry. So have a pretty water tight system overall. But that doesn't mean that we can stop here; we know there's work to be done.

That work is to replace the questionable water mains. How much is in question?

Generally we think of questionable mains as old mains but there's a lot more to it. We look at the pipe material, how it was installed and what the soil around it is like, but age is a good indicator. We have a huge mountain of pipe that's going to hit the 100-year-plus range in the next decade, so we want to get ahead of the pipe. There's some older pipe that we don’t see failures in that’s different construction and methods.

What percentage of LA pipe is questionable?

There's probably maybe 20 to 25 percent of pipe that’s getting to a range where we really want to get it replaced. Less than 10 percent we are really concerned about but there's a lot of pipe in the moderate range that’s getting older fast so we need to address it systematically. We've been ramping up our replacement rates and plan to continue to do that. That'll get us ahead of the curve. We don't want to wait until it goes bad and has a problem and we have to face it all at once.

What are you doing now?

We have increased our replacements. About five to six years ago we were doing about 11 miles of pipe a year and now we are doing about 25 to 30 miles of pipe a year replacements so it's dramatically increased. We're going to continue to push that up and be ahead of the pipe. Our leaks are down about a third of what they were six to eight years ago.

How does the drought affect the LADWP's sense of urgency in pipe repairs?

This is a real big issue. Because the leaks are one thing but the importance of losing that water has really added a different level of understanding to getting on the leaks, so we are increasing our crews that are available to, not just fix the pipe, but respond to the leaks. 

It's a heartbreak to see the water on the street going to waste. It's difficult because a lot of times a number of changes have to be made in the system so we can shut down the main correctly. We don’t want to cause additional damage, a sanitation issue where we have to worry about what's coming into a pipe when we shut it down. So there's a lot of factors that go into shutting down a pipe. Plus the fact that our crews are still battling the same traffic that people have when the pipe breaks. 

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