When a 2-foot-wide, cast iron water main broke beneath the H-1 freeway in Kahala in January, workers had to dig a gaping hole nearly 20 feet deep, and repairs took several days. A nightmarish traffic backup ensued, and the Waialae Beach Park was temporarily closed.

Two months later on a sunny afternoon in nearby Palolo, residents stood in their driveways, watching water shoot out of Pakui Street from a broken 16-inch cast iron main. The plume could be seen for miles as it rained down on a house across the street.

Sheila Niderost pointed to white lines around the break that she said were painted about a month earlier when the pipe had previously burst.

A Water Main Breaks Almost Every Day On Oahu

Like many Palolo residents, Niderost’s home has been in the family for decades. She can recall several main breaks on Pakui Street, including one 20 years ago that damaged her car and flooded her house and yard. The road cracked down the middle, and boulders rolled off the Wilhelmina Rise hillside at the end of her street.

“That was the worst I’ve ever seen it,” she said.

While some cause a lot more trouble than others, ruptures occur almost every day somewhere along Oahu’s 2,100 miles of water pipes.

Oahu has more water main breaks than most mainland cities of similar size. Unique island factors like underground lava tubes and corrosive clay soils — along with an apparent longtime unwillingness to charge people the actual cost of delivering their fresh water — are often blamed.

Whatever the cause, Honolulu faces a mammoth challenge in upgrading its water infrastructure. The Board of Water Supply aims to replace 1 percent of all pipes in the system annually, which would cost an estimated $160 million each year in current dollars.

BWS is considering another multi-year rate increase to help pay for the work. Even after fees were raised from 2012 to 2016, Oahu water users pay less than what is needed to operate and maintain the water system, according to a University of Hawaii professor and engineering expert.

Fixing the breaks at their current frequency costs the BWS about $3 million a year, and that doesn’t include the expense of wasted water and traffic congestion caused by the detours around Oahu’s impromptu fountains.

A sign informed visitors that the Honolulu Zoo was closed in early April after a water main break. It reopened the next day as repairs continued.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

It’s Worse In The Valleys

The soil in Palolo Valley corrodes water mains, said George Braun, a BWS pipefitter who was working on the recent break there. Corrosive soil is probably “more unique to Hawaii,” he said, which is why more modern pipes made of PVC — a type of plastic — are often installed in some areas.

Valleys like Palolo tend to have more breaks because of soil type and movement. Sections of the island with more people and older pipes also have more problems.

Cast iron pipes, like those under Pakui Street, are the most common pipes on Oahu. They’re also the oldest (some were installed as long as a century ago) and the most likely to break.

“This is one old area,” Braun said.

The BWS claims in a fact sheet that its number of main breaks is “far fewer than the American Water Works Association’s recommended maximum,” but many mainland cities have fewer.

Civil Beat contacted water service providers in 10 cities of similar population size, as well the water departments in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago — the most populous cities in America.

Water main breaks were calculated per 100 miles of pipe.

The AWWA, which develops guidelines for water providers, set its recommended maximum number of breaks at 25-30 per 100 miles of pipeline per year. There will always be some breaks, but a level higher than that is excessive, according to the association.

Nine of the 13 cities surveyed had fewer breaks per 100 miles of pipe than Oahu last year.

The chart below shows water main break averages:

Ken Ota, the Hawaii director of AWWA, owns Pacific Pipe Company in Pearl City. As a retailer, Ota said he sells to contractors who work with BWS and connect pipes to main lines.

“I sympathize with the Board of Water Supply because (repairing main breaks is) based on manpower … time management, it’s hard for them,” Ota said. “I feel their pain because it’s something that’s ongoing, battling our problems that we face in Hawaii of controlling corrosion.”

Honolulu isn’t alone in its struggles with water infrastructure.

Nationwide, about 240,000 water mains break each year, wasting an estimated 2 trillion gallons of drinking water, according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The AWWA estimates it would cost $1 trillion to properly maintain and expand water service nationwide by 2037. In its water infrastructure report, it predicted that water rate increases would be the primary source of funding for upgrades.

“As daunting as the figures in this report are, the prospect of not making the necessary investment is even more chilling,” the AWWA said. “Aging water mains are subject to more frequent breaks and other failures that can threaten public health and safety (such as compromising tap water quality and fire-fighting flows).”

This map shows the geographic propensity for Oahu water main breaks from 1970 to April 2016.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply

Until recently, Indianapolis was relying on water mains that dated to the 1890s, said Dan Considine, corporate communications manager for Indianapolis-based Citizens Energy Group.

Another part of the Indiana city’s problem was that the aftermath of World War II caused a steel shortage in the U.S. from 1945 to 1960, he said. Water companies were forced to use lower quality steel just as cities were rapidly expanding.

The Indianapolis-based utility invested $250 million in its water system over the past five years, Considine said, and now has about 200 fewer breaks per year as a result. Water rate increases and some funding from long-term municipal bonds paid for the projects, he said.

A few utility providers in colder climates were surprised to hear about the number of main breaks in Honolulu, since the weather is temperate and pipes never freeze.

But temperature isn’t a perfect indicator of how water infrastructure will hold up. Three water providers in warm-weather cities that Civil Beat contacted had more breaks than Oahu.

How Honolulu Is Different

While it never gets cold here, Oahu has varied altitudes, eroding mountains and is volcanic — all of which can create conditions that lead to burst pipes, said Ernest Lau, BWS manager and chief engineer.

BWS hydro-geologist Nancy Matsumoto explained in an email that “underlying lava, which is often highly porous” is prone to collapsing. This causes the land above to shift, she wrote.

The backs of valleys from Moanalua to Kalama are prone to slides, according to Barry Usagawa, BWS water resources program administrator. In addition, occasional high demand causes water pressures to fluctuate, which is also a contributing factor to main breaks, he said.

Saltwater causes corrosion, and pipes can shift because of expanding and contracting clay soil, Lau said. The Palolo Valley, which sees many breaks, is even named after the Hawaiian word for clay.

With more than 1,500 breaks in the past five years, costs add up. BWS spends an average of more than $3 million annually to fix breaks, including costs of labor and paying off claims. It has shelled out $2.1 million for property damage claims since July 2013.

BWS estimates it would cost $16 billion to completely replace all infrastructure, including reservoirs and treatment plants.

It hopes to start replacing 21 miles of pipe per year, or about four times more than what is currently replaced annually. To meet that goal, BWS said it would need $160 million per year, double its current capital improvement budget.

BWS also wants to improve its leak detection efforts. Lau said his department employs a full-time leak detection team that uses cameras to check the inside of water tanks and underground leak detectors that rely on acoustics.

Lau hopes to inspect 700 miles of pipes per year and check all 2,100 miles every three years. Last year, the team covered almost 245 miles.

All of BWS’s funding comes from ratepayers, said BWS spokeswoman Kathleen Elliott-Pahinui.

Here’s how Oahu’s population and water demand are expected to change by 2040. Overall, the Board of Water Supply projects another 21.6 million gallons of water per day will be needed by an additional 133,500 customers.

Honolulu Board of Water Supply

Not all costs of main breaks are financial. There’s traffic congestion, which was the worst consequence of January’s H-1 break. On the day of Civil Beat’s recent interview with Lau, BWS closed two lanes on Kapiolani Boulevard near Ala Wai Community Park to repair a main that had broken a few days earlier.

There’s also the environmental cost of wasted water.

BWS estimated an average of 586 million gallons of water — about 1 percent of all water flowing through the system — are lost in main breaks annually.

The board considers climate change when thinking about Oahu’s future water infrastructure, Lau said, and it is completing a vulnerability assessment. Rainfall is declining and the sea level is rising, which could pose a threat to water resources.

Water mains near coastlines are of particular concern because of the rising sea level, he said.

“We live in an island in the middle of an ocean of salt water,” Lau said, adding that protecting natural water resources, like aquifers, is “key to our survival.”

The board recently completed its Water Master Plan, which lays out 30 years of capital projects concurrent with changing population demands.

“The Master Plan is a key component of trying to address (main breaks) in the long term and try to keep our main breaks around the 300 range, or if we could bring it lower,” he said. “… It’s kind of a balance between affordability and how much we want to do.”

Now BWS is creating a financial plan and looking at potential rate increases, Lau said.

The rate increases would be spread across multiple years, he said, adding it’s too early to estimate just how much those will be.

Are Water Rates Too Low?

But Amarjit Singh, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UH Manoa, already has an estimate of his own. In 2009, Singh began analyzing 15 years of BWS records to create an asset management plan for the board. With help from graduate students, he looked at factors such as pipe cost, durability and amount of time taken to complete repairs.

Singh found households needed to pay three to four times more in water rates for BWS to have a reasonable budget. The board had a pressing need for infrastructure upgrades and more employees, he said.

BWS currently charges residents $4.42 for 1,000 gallons of water — for the first 13,000 gallons per month. Residents are charged $5.33 per 1,000 gallons for the next 13,001-30,000 gallons consumed and $7.94 per 1,000 gallons if more than 30,000 gallons are used.

Even with rate increases that took effect after his final report was written in 2011, Singh’s estimate shows households should be paying at least $3.95 more per 1,000 gallons of water for the first 13,000 gallons used.

Honolulu water is cheaper than some West Coast cities. Civil Beat calculated how much residents of Seattle, Portland and San Francisco pay per 1,000 gallons of water based on rates listed online:

City Monthly Cost Per 1,000 Gallons
Honolulu $4.42 (for the first 13,000 gallons)
Seattle $6.88 (Sept. 16 – May 15) / $7.07 (May 16-Sept. 15)
Portland $5.62
San Francisco $8.02

Base billing fees were also higher in other cities than in Honolulu, where residents pay $9.26 per month.

“People in the community expect water to come for free,” Singh said. “Isn’t that a precious commodity?”

BWS is a semi-autonomous agency. Water rate increases would have to be approved by its seven-member board of directors.

Board members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. They’re tasked with appointing the two top BWS employees and overseeing operations.

photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A main break on Hardesty Street off of 10th Avenue in the Palolo Valley in August 2015.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Amarjit speculated that city politicians may appoint board directors who will carry out their own interests — like keeping water rates low — so lawmakers can be re-elected.

“In this town, it’s particularly bad,” he said.

Bryan Andaya, BWS chair, denied the board is susceptible to political influence.

“It’s never a popular thing to raise rates and I think that’s one of the reasons why in the city charter, (BWS is) semi-autonomous,” he said. “… I don’t think any other body would want to be responsible for that and take the blame for raising the rates. It’s never easy to raise rates.”

Efforts have been made to bring the BWS back under city lawmakers’ control, but haven’t succeeded because “politicizing water, which is life, it’s a dangerous precedent,” Andaya said.

Andaya declined to say if he favors more rate increases, but he said it’s important to consider them.

About the Author