S.F. Water Main Rupture Symptomatic of Trillion-Dollar National Problem

Categories: Government
Castle Geyser.jpg
Eruptions of water are more picturesque in Yellowstone Park than South of Market
Here's a reassuring thought -- yes, the city does have a program in place to replace its oldest and most vulnerable water mains.

Here's a less reassuring thought: A 100-year-old water main burst over the weekend, flooding SoMa with millions of gallons of water. It required neither an earthquake nor a misplaced jackhammer to give up the ghost, but simply died of old age. And this pipe was not on the city's list of pending replacements -- meaning there are older and more vulnerable pipes in service still. 

Finally, here's one of the least reassuring thoughts of all -- San Francisco's water mains appear to be in better shape than those beneath many parts of the nation. Jonathan Martin, the chief of Materials and Construction Research at the Building and Fire Research Laboratory told SF Weekly that Washington, D.C. experienced 2,500 water main breaks last year alone (San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesman Tyrone Jue was unsure how many breaks the city experienced on a yearly basis, but said it was "definitely not thousands." UPDATE, 2.P.M.: Jue says "fewer than 100" breaks occur in San Francisco yearly).

Aging water and sewage pipes are a looming problem that will take perhaps even upwards of $1 trillion to remedy, if we get to it right away, Martin says. And no one's getting to this right away.

"The American Society for Civil Engineers has been tracking this since the early 1980s," he says. "We haven't been getting to it, and it's been getting exponentially worse every year.

In fact, on the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2009 infrastructure report card, the nation's water mains received a D-minus. Keeping the nation's drinking and wastewater systems flowing would require an investment of some $255 billion in the next five years alone according to the ASCE -- but Martin points out that this is a conservative estimate.

"Depending upon whose review you read, the EPA's or the American Waterworks Association's and so on, we're looking at something in the order of half a trillion to over a trillion dollars," he says.

Much of this money will have to be paid by cities like San Francisco. The city is five years into a program to retrofit or replace aging pipelines -- but, again, Jue confirms the ruptured SoMa water main was not scheduled to be replaced. There are both older and more vulnerable pipes out there -- some, he says, do not have neighboring lines to shunt the water flow to. And they hail from the Taft administration.

Jue estimates that 10 percent of the city's 1,200 miles of pipelines are 100 years old or more. It stands to reason that these pipes, as demonstrated by the weekend's gusher, are nearing the end of their effective lifespans. But the funding is not there to replace them all. "We definitely have to prioritize jobs," Jue says. "There's not an infinite amount of money."

But water mains are easy to neglect. As far as the general public is concerned, you don't think about them until the street is transformed into a geyser. And then it's effectively too late. When asked what would happen if the nation waited too long to replace its crumbling water infrastructure, Martin gave an ominous reply.

"I think you know the answer to that as well as I do."

Photo   |   Magnus Manske
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