Pipe Fix First

England gets as much rain as California gets sunshine. So, on a recent trip to the land of my birth, it was with some surprise that I noted English authorities


England gets as much rain as California gets sunshine. So, on a recent trip to the land of my birth, it was with some surprise that I noted English authorities issuing Îhose pipe bansÌ, urging residents not to water their lawns, wash their cars, or take long showers.

Water in Britain is plentiful. What the British don’t have is good pipes. In parts of England, as much as 60 percent of treated water escapes from faulty pipes before it reaches the home.

When admonished to be thankful that California does not have that problem, I smugly congratulated myself Û too soon, it would appear. Returning to the U.S., I was not off the plane two hours before I heard a similar plea for water conservation, citing a 20-year low for the California snow pack.

In contrast to the English modus operandi, however, authorities failed to mention that in some parts of California leaking water mains account for the loss of as much as 30 percent of clean, treated water before it reaches our faucets. An obscure paragraph on the state’s own web site provides the rest of the story:

A detailed water audit and leak detection program of 47 California water utilities found an average loss of 10 percent and a range of 30 percent to less than 5 percent of the total water supplied by the utilities. The July 1997 Journal of the American Water Works Association cites examples of more than 45 percent leakage.

For a tire that leaks, one would surely fix the hole before adding more air. But, water management is different: instead of repairing the holes spewing more than 50 billion gallons a year from California pipes alone, we force more water into the system and hope the day of reckoning comes on someone else’s watch. That day has arrived Û our pipes are bad and getting worse.

Faulty infrastructure for potable water often exacts an unexpected toll: If 45 percent more water is pumped than necessary, homebuilders are paying 45 percent more in developer fees for water hook-ups. And, water availability currently is a standard for new home development. Officials who do not take care of the water mains now are telling us we need to guarantee more water sources before we will be allowed to build a new home.

The leaking pipe dilemma also extends to sewer systems. A sewer pipe filled with holes typically lets in more water than it lets out sewage. Fixing the holes can reduce the flow into a sewage treatment plant by 60 percent. So, the choice is evident: Hit developers up for money to build bigger sewage treatment plants Û or fix the pipes.

People around the world are confronted by that choice. UN scientists say global warming will damage our water supply in 20 years. While that claim is credible, a crisis may be even more imminent, since bad pipes are putting our water supply in jeopardy right now, all over the world.

In Auburn, N.Y., city officials are losing 50 percent in what industry insiders call Îunaccounted forÌ or non-revenue water. In Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other large eastern cities, the amount falls between 30 and 40 percent. In Kansas, 61 water districts lose 30 percent or more of their water. Some major cities in the developing world, including Manila and New Delhi, lose 75 percent of their water to bad pipes. American pipes alone leak enough water to supply all of California all the time.

By comparison, admittedly, Californians are thrifty water consumers, as most places register losses somewhere around 20 percent, plus or minus a few points. Auburn loses 25 percent; Fresno is near 20 percent; and, San Francisco is 16 percent. Nevertheless, such rates are still twice the maximum leakage level recommended by water experts. Moreover, information about non-revenue or Îunaccounted forÌ water is painfully difficult to find.

Even water leakage proponents have lawyers and lobbyists in California, as demonstrated by the case of the Imperial Valley’s All American Canal. It loses 25 billion gallons of water every year, enough to supply millions of people. Typical of most leaking pipes, negligence is the culprit. Yet, lots of people in Mexico Û and a few on this side of the border Û like it that way. Residents of Mexico sued the federal government 13 years ago to halt repair of the leaks, because they depended on the water for farming. Fixing the leaks would ruin Mexican farms, they claimed, as well as American habitat. Consequently, 25 billion gallons of water leaked out of the canal each year for nearly a decade and a half.

A court recently ruled water officials can start fixing the leak. One down, millions more to go, but it’s a step in the right direction.

More good news has surfaced: previously, the only way to repair a pipe was Îpatch and prayÌ or dig it up and replace it with new product. The first fix was a short-term solution, and the second was expensive and disruptive.

Now, another option is available. In Monroe, Mich., city officials recently were among the first to fix water leaks using a new technology that allows pipes to be repaired from the inside, without digging. Trenchless technology has been used on sewer and oil pipes for decades, but until now, has not been applied to potable water pipes. Today, the new technology can reduce both the expense and disruption of water pipe repair and maintenance.

Thus, a new era begins for water infrastructure management. Before officials start asking citizens to tolerate dirty cars, brown lawns, and empty pools, they can do something even more effective: Call an underground utility contractor.

Michael Pattinson is President and CEO of Barratt American, a California homebuilder, and McCanna Water Co., a utility serving a Barratt community. His position on the need for public works investment parallels the one concrete and construction interests continue to advance at federal, state and local government levels.