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Op/Ed "You Fix Your Pipes 'Till Then, I'll Water My Lawn"

May 9, 2007
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The English get as much rain as we in California get sunshine. So it was with some surprise that on a recent trip to the land of my birth, English authorities were issuing 'hose pipe bans,” urging residents not to water their lawns, wash their cars or take long showers.

They have tons of water, we know that. So water is not the problem. What they don't have is good pipes. In parts of England as much as 60% of treated water escapes from bad pipes before it reaches the home.

When my brother said I should be thankful that we did not have that problem in California. I smugly congratulated myself - too soon it turns.

I was not off the plane for two hours before hearing a similar plea for water conservation. They said the California snow pack is at a 20-year low.

But in contrast to England, here is what water authorities did not tell us: California water mains are in such bad shape that in parts of the state, as much as 30% and more of our clean, treated water leaks from lousy pipes before it reaches our faucets.

An obscure paragraph on the state's own Web site gives the rest of the story:
“A detailed water audit and leak detection program of 47 California water utilities found an average loss of 10%, and a range of 30% to less than 5% of the total water supplied by the utilities. The July 1997 Journal American Water Works Association cites examples of more than 45% leakage.”

If your tire leaks, surely you would fix the hole before adding more air. But water is different. It supposedly is cheap. So instead of repairing the holes spewing more than 50 billion gallons a year from California pipes alone, we just force more water down there, and hope the day of reckoning comes on someone else's watch.

That day is today. Our pipes are bad. And getting worse.

And it is often costing us in unexpected ways: If we are pumping 45% more water than we should, that means homebuilders are paying 45% more in developer fees for water hook-ups than we should.

And water availability is now a standard for new home development. The same people who do not take care of their water mains are now telling us we need to guarantee more sources of water before they allow us to build a new home.

Same with sewer pipes - a sewer pipe filled with holes often lets in more water than it lets out sewage. Fixing the holes can reduce about 60% of the flow into a sewage treatment plant. So here's the choice: Hit developers up for the money for bigger sewage treatment plants that are not necessary. Or fix the pipes.

It's a choice people around the world are having to make.

UN scientists say global warming will damage our water supply in 20 years. True enough. But we don't have to wait; bad pipes are putting our water supply in jeopardy right now. And it is happening all over the world.

  • In Auburn, NY, city officials are losing 50% of what industry insiders call unaccounted for water or non-revenue water.
  • In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and other large eastern cities, the number is between 30% and 40%.
  • In Kansas, 61 water districts lose 30% or more of their water.
  • In Manila, New Delhi, and other large cities in the developing world, 75% of the water is lost to bad pipes.
  • American pipes alone leak enough water to supply all of California all the time.

Admittedly, by comparison, we are water spendthrifts in California, with most places losing somewhere around 20%, plus or minus a few points.

Auburn, CA, loses 25%. Fresno is near 20%. San Francisco is 16%. That is still twice as high as water experts recommend as the maximum level of leakage. And information about non-revenue water or unaccounted for water, to use the industry lingo, is painfully difficult to find.

Water leaks in California even have their own lawyers and lobbyists, as is the case with the All American Canal in the Imperial Valley. It loses 25 billion gallons of water every year. Enough for millions of people.

Most pipes leak through negligence. Same with the canal. But lots of people in Mexico and a few on this side of the border like it that way.

Thirteen years ago, residents of Mexico sued the federal government to stop it from fixing the leaks because they depended on the water for farming. Fixing the leaks would ruin Mexican farms, American habitat, and just about everything else in between. So they say.

So for the last 13 years, 25 billion gallons of water leaked out of the Canal - each and every year.

Last month, a court ruled water officials to start fixing the leak. One down, millions more to go. But it's a start.

There's more good news: It used to be that the only way to repair a pipe was to "patch and pray" or dig it up and replace it with a new pipe. The first fix was a short-term solution and the second was expensive and disruptive.

Now there's another choice: In Monroe, MI, last month, city officials were among the first to fix water leaks using a new technology that allows pipes to be repaired from the inside without digging.

This so-called trenchless technology has been used on sewer and oil pipes for decades, but until now, has not been available for water pipes.

That is all changed now, reducing both the expense and disruption of fixing and maintaining water pipes.

That makes it a new day for water pipes. Before officials start asking us to tolerate dirty cars, brown lawns and empty pools, perhaps they can do something for themselves that would be even more effective: Call a plumber.

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