July 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

L.A. pipes at breaking point

Water line rupture points to aging national problem

Work crews assess the damage to a ruptured 90-year-old water main on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles on Wednesday. (Al Seib / MCT)

Los Angeles— The rupture of a nearly century-old water main that ripped a 15-foot hole through Sunset Boulevard and turned a swath of the University of California, Los Angeles into a mucky swamp points to the risks and expense many cities face with miles of water lines installed decades ago.

Much of the piping in the country dates to the first half of the previous century, with some installed even before Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House.

Age can take a toll. There are 240,000 breaks a year, according to the National Association of Water Companies. a problem compounded by stress from an increasing population and budget crunches that slow the pace of replacement.

The group says 45 percent of water pipes in the U.S. are in poor shape, and the average age of a broken water main is 47 years.

In Los Angeles, a million feet of piping has been delivering water for at least 100 years, officials say.

Repair crews on Thursday were shoring up a giant hole in the middle of Sunset Boulevard caused Tuesday by the ruptured pipe, as officials at the water-logged UCLA, continued to assess damage from the 20 million gallons that inundated the campus.

When taps are running and swimming pools are brimming, no one pays attention to water lines, typically invisible underground.

But with the passage of time the country has reached a point where vast amounts of piping is wearing out at about the same time, said Greg Kail of the nonprofit American Water Works Association.

“Water pipes last a long, long time but they don’t last forever,” he notes. “There is a lot of pipe in the ground and there is an enormous expense, collectively, in replacing it.”

The 30-inch pipe that burst near UCLA sent a 30-foot geyser into the air that eventually sent at least 8 million gallons of water onto campus in the midst of California’s worst drought in decades. Repairs could take days.

At one point, water was gushing out of the break in the riveted steep pipe at a rate of 75,000 gallons a minute.

The pipe had been worked on before. While the cause of the break remained under investigation, Mike Miller, a district superintendent for the city Department of Water and Power, said the crack occurred near a connection where the 93-year-old water main joined a pipe installed in 1956.

The reputation of Los Angeles for producing the next new thing in style and culture doesn’t extend to its creaky infrastructure. The city is decades behind in repairs to cratered streets and sidewalks.