You’ve seen the news time and time again, in the newspaper and on TV. Sometimes, you’re even stuck in traffic or forced to go without this precious resource for an extended period of time.

If you haven’t guessed what I’m referring to by now, we’re talking about water main breaks in Honolulu.

We just had one, on Sunday April 3, in the heart of Hawaii’s tourist mecca, Waikiki. Board of Water Supply workers came to the aid of a blowout on a 12-inch water main on Ala Moana Boulevard at Hobron Lane, closing a couple of nearby businesses and causing traffic jams.

Some say it happens all too often, but the water board tells Civil Beat that Honolulu water main breaks are below the national average.

So does its claim hold any water?

The board manages nearly 2,100 miles of pipeline, servicing almost every community on Oahu. On top of that, it oversees 94 potable water sources, 90 booster pump stations and 170 reservoirs.

The board says Honolulu experiences an average of one main break per day. This equates to an annual average of more than 17 breaks per 100 miles of pipeline. According to the American Water Works Association, the national average is 25-30 breaks per 100 miles of pipeline.

The AWWA, an international, nonprofit, scientific and educational society dedicated to the improvement of drinking water quality and supply, reports about 700 breaks per day in the U.S.
Here’s a look at the yearly breakdown of water main breaks in Honolulu, going back five years:

Honolulu Main Breaks

Year Main Breaks
2006 373
2007 350
2008 321
2009 395
2010 356

Civil Beat took a closer look at similar-sized cities near the ocean whose pipes are around the same age: Portland, Seattle and San Diego.

The Honolulu water board said it doesn’t compare its frequency of breaks with other cities. But we thought it’s reasonable to check its claim against what residents of these other similar cities experience.

Honolulu looks bad in comparison.

Portland

First, we checked in with the Portland Water Bureau’s director of maintenance and construction, Kelly Rae Mulholland. He told Civil Beat the “City of Roses” encompasses 2,600 miles of pipeline.

“We started tracking in 2008,” he said. “We’ve had big years, but we average about 160 breaks a year and that’s what we budget for.”

Here’s how Portland’s yearly main breaks stack up:

Portland Main Breaks

Year Main breaks
2008 166
2009 138
2010 99

That’s six breaks for every 100 miles of pipeline, or one-third of Honolulu’s rate.

Seattle

Next up is Seattle. The “Emerald City” has 1,800 miles of pipeline.

“This includes everything from pinhole leaks, to vertical and horizontal breaks,” Seattle Public Utilities media relations coordinator Andy Ryan wrote Civil Beat in an email.

Seattle Main Breaks

Year Main breaks
2006 140
2007 133
2008 136
2009 138
2010 111

That’s an average of 132 breaks per year.

That’s slightly more than seven breaks per year for every 100 miles of pipeline, less than half Honolulu’s rate.

San Diego

And then there’s San Diego. “America’s Finest City” has a water system that includes approximately 3,300 miles of pipeline.

San Diego Main Breaks

Year Main breaks
2006 125
2007 109
2008 112
2009 107
2010 133

That’s an average of 117 breaks per year. San Diego’s rate of 3.6 breaks for every 100 miles of pipeline is one-fifth of Honolulu’s rate.

While it’s true that Honolulu falls below the national average for water main breaks, the frequency of water main breaks here is much higher than in these three other cities.

So why the clear cut difference? Civil Beat posed the “burning,” or should we say “cooling,” question to the Board of Water Supply.

“One of the BWS’s greatest challenges is one faced by utilities throughout the nation, that of an aging infrastructure,” communications specialist Kurt Tsue wrote Civil Beat in an email. “More than 40 percent of our pipelines are between 30 to 60 years old. While our own water infrastructure may not be as old in as many parts of the country, the longevity of our underground infrastructure is significantly impacted by severely corrosive marine environments that shorten the service life of our pipeline assets.”

Tsue said other factors include corrosion, stray electrical currents, accidental damage during excavation and drastic changes in system pressure.

“Drastic changes in soil conditions also play a role in the main breaks,” he said. “We tend to notice it after heavy rains and the ground saturates (soil expands) and when the wet soil dries (soil compacts).”

The American Water Works Association refused to speculate why Honolulu has more water breaks than these other cities.

“I really can’t speak to their situation,” AWWA director’s of communications, Greg Kail, told Civil Beat. “There could be a lot of reasons, including how a main break is classified. One utility’s break might be a leak to other utilities, but that’s just speculation.”

Kail also said the AWWA doesn’t perform in-depth studies on cities.

Solutions

The water board said it has taken several proactive steps toward reducing the amount of breaks on the island.

• As part of its “Quality Infrastructure Conservation Initiative (QUINCI), field crews gather data at the main repair site to determine why different pipelines failed. The data can be used to develop solutions that can be later be incorporated in pipeline design, installation and/or maintenance.

• A team is dedicated to detecting leaks within the water system. When leaks are detected, a crew can execute a planned repair job on the main, thereby fixing the leak before it turns into an emergency main break.

• Working on corrosion control methods in an attempt to extend the life of its waterlines. In an ongoing effort to provide a safe and dependable water supply, the board carefully manages and plans for the renewal and improvement of its infrastructure. To do this, the board analyzes information collected on the water system and prioritizes its pipeline replacement projects based on four factors:

1) Condition assessment, analyzing data such as main break records, pipe age and material, soil type, health, and other conditions helps determine which pipe segments have a high probability of failure.

2) Fire protection improvement. The BWS puts priority on waterline projects that enhance fire protection through increased water pressure, enlarging pipe size, or adding more hydrants.

3) Public impact. Priority is given to projects that replace pipelines where breaks would have a large impact on residents, businesses, or major traffic routes. Also, pipeline servicing customers that provide essential services (such as hospitals) or serve large numbers of people are also given higher priority.

4) Project coordination. Priority is given to waterline replacement projects that can be combined with a project by other utilities or the city or state. This would reduce the project’s overall impact on residents or motorists.

A National Problem

In its 2009 report card on America‘s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s drinking water system a grade of “D” minus.