A flood of broken mains

Leaks: Baltimore's water system endures a `really bad year' of water main breaks. The reason? Well, it's anyone's guess.

April 08, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Chalk it up to century-old pipes. Or newer, weaker ones. Or the cold winter and the spring thaw. Not to mention the "shifting sands of the Chesapeake" and some spectacularly bad luck.

Whatever the reason, more than three times a day on average, a water main breaks in areas served by Baltimore.

And lately, they've been breaking big. As many as 200,000 customers in northwest Baltimore County were without water for two days last month after two major mains blew. That was the worst incident in a season flush with bad breaks.

It's enough to suggest a new municipal slogan: Baltimore, the city that leaks.

"We've had a really bad year, and I don't know why that is," said Jay Sakai, chief of the city Public Works Department's Bureau of Water and Wastewater. "We've had some big problems that we wouldn't normally expect."

Last year, there were 1,190 breaks along Baltimore's 3,400 miles of water mains, which deliver drinking water to taps across the city and surrounding counties. There were 1,140 breaks in 2002.

Compare that with Philadelphia, with the same amount of pipe but an average of 788 ruptures a year. Or New York, which has 6,000 miles of mains but 550 annual breaks. And then there's Boston, which has 1,023 miles of pipe and 35 breaks.

The number of breaks in Baltimore surprised officials in some of those other cities.

"That's an awfully high number," said Thomas Bagley, manager of community services for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.

Baltimore officials say those comparisons might not be fair because the other cities could keep records differently.

But no one disputes that Baltimore's broken water mains leave thousands of customers with dry faucets and keep city work crews scrambling.

So far this year, Baltimore has had slightly fewer water main breaks than this time last year. But this year, the breaks have been bigger.

A 36-inch line ruptured in northwest Baltimore County March 15. Water was rerouted to a 54-inch main, which broke the next night.

"To have a situation where you have a 36 and a 54 break within two days of each other, it's like getting struck by lightning," Sakai said.

Last week, 150 East Baltimore homes were without water for three days after a 12-inch main broke at North Avenue and Wolfe Street.

One reason Baltimore is always digging up broken pipes has to do with the soft, sedimentary soil they're buried in, said Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for public works. That type of soil is especially likely to shift with winter freezes and spring thaws, he said.

"We're in an estuary," said Kocher, a former geography teacher. "The Hudson River is a fjord, tall cliffs carved out by glaciers. What you have there is solid bedrock. ... How many of their pipes are buried in bedrock and they're cradled and not going to be shifting around?"

Baltimore's pipes, by contrast, lie in "the shifting sands of the Chesapeake," he said.

Greg Kail, a spokesman for the American Water Works Association in Denver, said geology and other factors can make some places especially prone to water main breaks.

"There are so many variables in a local situation -- soil differences, climate," he said. "It's very difficult to compare what should be when you go from one situation to another."

A "reasonable goal" for water systems in North America is 25 to 30 breaks per 100 miles of pipe per year, according to the American Water Works Association Research Foundation.

Baltimore misses that mark, though not by much, with an average of 34 breaks per 100 miles over the past two years.

Not far behind was the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, with 33 breaks per 100 miles over the same time period. Detroit was worse off, with an average of 45 breaks.

Several other cities met the goal, some of them relatively young, affluent communities with moderate weather, but some of them old, poor and in harsh climates. For every 100 miles of pipe, Phoenix had 29 breaks a year, Pittsburgh had 23, and Hartford 20. Chicago and Providence each had 9. San Diego had 5.

Differences in record-keeping could account for Baltimore's relatively high break rate, Sakai said. What gets reported as a water main break in Baltimore may turn out to be a leak in a smaller service line leading into a house, he said.

Some cities, including Providence and Hartford, include all leaks in their figures. New York, for one, does not.

Like many older East Coast cities, Baltimore has pipes that were mostly put down between 1900 and 1950, Sakai said. And also like its counterparts, Baltimore spends millions each year to keep its old system going. The city is spending $11.3 million this year on capital improvements to its water system, including $6 million for cleaning and lining pipes, and $2 million to install new mains.

Even with that investment, there will always be water main breaks, Sakai said, adding that they are not the true measure of a good water system.

Baltimore's water has won taste contests, and the city recently began bottling it as a promotional item.

"Our system without question is old," Sakai said. "You are going to have problems. Do I think things are falling down around our ears? No."

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