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Rupture that flooded UCLA points US pipe woes

July 31, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The rupture of a nearly century-old water main that turned a swath of the University of California, Los Angeles into a mucky mess points to the risks and expense many U.S. cities face with water lines installed generations ago.

The flooding that sent more than 20 million gallons (76 million liters) of water cascading from a water main came in the midst of California’s worst drought in decades and on the same day that tough new state fines took effect for residents who waste water by hosing down driveways or using a hose without a nozzle to wash their car.

Much of the piping that carries drinking water in the U.S. dates to the first half of the 20th century.

Age inevitably takes a toll. There are 240,000 breaks a year, according to the National Association of Water Companies, a problem compounded by stress from an increasing population and budget crunches that slow the pace of replacement.

“Much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life,” the American Society of Civil Engineers said in a report last year, noting that the cost of replacing pipes in coming decades could exceed $1 trillion.

The association of water companies says nearly half of the pipes in the U.S. are in poor shape, and the average age of a broken water main is 47 years. In Los Angeles, a million feet (300,000 meters of piping has been delivering water for at least 100 years.

When taps are running and swimming pools are brimming, no one pays attention to water lines, typically invisible underground. But the country has reached a point where vast lengths of pipe are wearing out at about the same time, said Greg Kail of the nonprofit American Water Works Association.

The 30-inch (76-centimeter) pipe that burst Tuesday near UCLA shot a 30-foot (9-meter) geyser into the air that sent water down storm drains and onto campus. The pipe was still gushing 1,000 gallons a minute on Wednesday and officials said repairs could take another two days.

The pipe had been worked on before. While the cause of the break remained under investigation, Mike Miller, a district superintendent for the city Department of Water and Power, said the crack occurred near a connection where the 93-year-old water main joined a pipe installed in 1956.

The reputation of Los Angeles for producing the next new things in style and culture doesn’t extend to its creaky infrastructure. The city is decades behind in repairs to cratered streets and sidewalks and some of its water lines have been around so long that William Mulholland could have seen them going in.

Mulholland is the father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913, that brings in water from 200 miles (322 kilometers) away and reshaped Los Angeles from a parched railhead into the nation’s second most populous city.

The UCLA flood left people stranded in parking garages and sent water cascading into the school’s storied basketball court, Pauley Pavilion, less than two years after a $136 million renovation.

UCLA Vice Chancellor Kelly Schmader said up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) of water covered the basketball court and it showed some signs of buckling. The floor will be repaired or replaced as necessary and will be ready by the start of the basketball season this fall, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said.

On Wednesday evening, six men helping to pump out water from the pavilion were treated for exposure to carbon monoxide from a generator’s exhaust, city fire spokeswoman Katherine Main said. Two were taken to a hospital in fair condition and four were treated at the scene, she said. The generator was shut off and the building was aired out.

Despite the rupture, no utility customers were without water. No injuries were reported.

UCLA officials said six facilities were damaged and about 960 vehicles remained trapped, with many totally submerged.

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Associated Press writers Raquel Maria Dillon, Christopher Weber, Bob Jablon, Beth Harris and Andrew Dalton contributed to this report.

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