Age Difficult to Hide in Los Angeles' Vast Water Supply System

The main line trunk that burst and turned UCLA into a swimming pool was 93 years old

There are many ways to conceal the signs of age in Los Angeles. But when it comes to the city's water line system, the effects of aging are more difficult to hide.

The massive Sunset Boulevard water main break Tuesday in Westwood illustrated in spectacular style -- geysers of water, a sinkhole, flooding on the UCLA campus -- the risks that come with expansive water line systems installed decades ago.

The failure also led to a familiar "Band-Aid approach" that experts say is common when pipes in an aging system fail.

"In the United States the basic approach to infrastructure is what many people call the Band-Aid approach," said Harvey Gobas, a civil engineer who worked on a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers on California's drinking water systems. "You fix, and it lasts a few more years. Maybe in some cases it will last 10 or 20 more years, but you still don't have a new pipe."

Tuesday afternoon's break occurred at the meeting point under Sunset Boulevard of a 30-inch pipe installed in 1921 and a 36-inch pipe installed in 1956. Pipes typically last 50 to 75 years, and in a city like Los Angeles many -- like the main line trunk that broke near the UCLA campus -- are actually older, said Gobas.

A 2012 report on LA County's water system, also by the American Society of Civil Engineers, rated it as a C overall and a C- for condition. According to the study, the grade was primarily based on the age of the systems and their need for replacement.

Both city officials and infrastructure experts agree that improvements to the city's water pipeline system need to be made, but the improvements cost billions which officials say the city doesn't have.

"A lot of the agencies that really need to be spending money to upgrade their infrastructure just don't have the money," Gobas said.


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L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz said if the city was working at 100-year replacement rate fixing the pipe system would cost about $4 billion, a huge increase that would be passed on to ratepayers.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was scheduled to replace 130,000 feet of main line and five large valves in the city's 7,200 mile pipe system, but it said the project has fallen behind schedule. The department said the delay was due in part to budget constraints that caused a $380 million reduction in the previous annual plan.

In response to budget shortfalls, water agencies have implemented piecemeal solutions to patch up, instead of replace, the miles and miles of pipe that run water underground

By Thursday, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power crews had stopped the flow of water to the Westwood site and started the repair process. The break, which sent about 20 million gallons of water onto the UCLA campus and surround area, flooding buildings and parking structures, involved two trunk lines.

"We have two trunk lines involved and where they connected required special fittings," said Jeff Bray, LADWP general superintendent for water distribution. "It isn't where we can just cut out a straight piece of pipe and put in a straight piece, which is a pretty simple repair. This a very complex repair. We're basically having to realign or reroute some of the pipes -- the direction on how they came together before they're going to come together in a different way now."

Los Angeles typically experiences an increase in pipe breaks during winter months, when colder water enters the system. Authorities have not determined what caused Tuesday's rupture.

The flooding created a spectacular mess, but no utility customers were without water. No injuries were reported. The rupture occurred about five years after a 62-inch pipe burst in the San Fernando Valley, sending water into a Studio City neighborhood.

To prioritize what repairs need to be made, the LADWP has an asset management system that includes strategies like periodically examining the water network and sometimes waiting for problems, or leaks, to spring up before fixing them.

Last year, however, the department took the first steps in a proactive approach toward its water infrastructure system. It began a pilot program to replace old pipes with earthquake resistant ones. The pipes, which are developed and used in Japan have no recorded leaks in 40 years of use.

Ellen Hanak, an economist who leads water research at the Public Policy Institute of California, said that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was making investments in its infrastructure both for maintenance and upgrades, as well as in new storage, recycling waste water and capturing storm water.

"So they're doing all of that as well as managing the existing assets that they have, some of which are old," she said. "My understanding is that they have a pretty modern and sophisticated asset management program to try to basically make strategic decisions on what you replace when."

Researchers documented the urban water supply situation around the state in a March report titled, "Paying for Water in California."

"We found in general that the state's urban water suppliers and water agencies were doing a pretty good job in terms of planning for their capital needs and investing in it, if you compare estimates of needs with what their spending," Hanak said. "That doesn't mean that everything is perfect but it does mean we're not seriously off track."

NBC4's Lolita Lopez and Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this report.

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