A water main breaks almost every day in Honolulu, and all those repairs have cost ratepayers more than $80 million over the last five years.

That number includes the cost of personnel, materials and supplies and equipment, and includes both emergency water main breaks and proactive leak repairs undertaken by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.

In all, Honolulu has 2,100 miles of underground pipe, some of it 100 years old. But water crews are only able to repair or replace a few miles of pipe each year under the current budget.

Now water rates are going up, in part to keep up with the massive repair and upkeep effort. The water board last year set a rate schedule that calls for 10 percent increases every year for five years — from $2.79 per 1,000 gallons of water in 2011 to $4.42 per 1,000 gallons on July 1, 2015 — to pay for the crumbling infrastructure.

And while the Board of Water Supply remains a semi-autonomous agency that doesn’t report directly to either the mayor or the Honolulu City Council, politicians in both branches have raised increasing rates and deteriorating pipes as part of a broader problem in Honolulu government. In particular, former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, running this year for Honolulu mayor, says increasing the rate of water pipe replacement is one of the changes he’d implement if elected.

There have been at least 300 breaks in each of the last four years and the city’s again on pace to come in right around the 300 mark in 2012, according to data from the water board. Those numbers include planned repairs as well as emergency responses — any time the crew goes out, it’s marked as a break.

Honolulu has 2,100 miles of pipe underground — that’s more than 11 million feet and almost the distance from Honolulu to San Francisco.

“With all that pipeline, because of that underground infrastructure, you’re bound to have breaks sometimes,” says Ernest Lau, the new manager and chief engineer of the water board.

Senior members of Lau’s team also downplay the severity of the problem.

“I think that a main break a day, they think the water system is in terrible shape,” said capital projects chief Jason Takaki. “They for the most part don’t even know how much they pay for their water or what it’s worth. I think across the board people take it for granted. It just comes out of the tap at their house. They have no concept of how it gets to their house or that it even is pumped out of the ground. How could that possibly happen?”

The cost of main break repairs and millions more spent to upgrade the system are part of the equation, and there’s a societal cost every time a resident or business is cut off from the water supply and every time a crew needs to block off busy street lanes to conduct repairs.

“It’s really hard to get a hold on the total delay that happens,” Honolulu Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka told Civil Beat. His department manages the city’s traffic — cars that are backed up whenever a main break closes a road. “As far as the delay, the cost of delay, that’s a hard number to get. … We don’t specifically keep track of that information.”

There are many factors that go into the number of main breaks. Replacing pipe tends to help avoid breaks, since older pipe is more likely to break than newer pipe. On average, the board’s 17 or 18 breaks per 100 miles per year is below the national average.

“That number includes leaks we’ve detected and go in and proactively fix it,” Takaki said. “It’s impacts on the water system by contractors. All these things go into these main breaks. And then it’s just the nature of the environment here. … It’s the tree roots because of the lush vegetation, it’s the ground movement because of young geology. It’s all these things.

“I think if you look at the trend from 2002 to the present, that by putting in more pipeline projects, doing repairs to the system, trying to control pressures in the system, the number of breaks is trending downward,” Takaki said. “But it’ll never reach zero, because we cannot afford to, with that much pipe underground, reach that point. It would become unaffordable for the water customers.”

Source: Board of Water Supply

Lau wants to spend more than $200 million on capital projects in the next five years, more than half of the money going to aging-pipeline projects to counter the ravages of age as well as tree roots, corrosive soil conditions, ground movement, traffic on the road, pressures in the system and even stray electrical currents.

Replacing five to eight miles of pipe per year means the system would be totally overhauled only once every 250 or 400 years. Lau says that’s far too long, and he wants to ramp up the number to get a handle on the system.

“Some pipes we might run as long as we can run it. It depends on the level of risk that we would face if that pipe would break,” Lau said. “But yeah definitely we’ve got to increase our project delivery in terms of not only pipeline projects but all our other types of CIP projects. And that’s what I’m working with Jason to look at our project delivery process to see if there’s opportunities to become more efficient and effective.”

“It wouldn’t be dramatic change, but it’s going to have to be gradual, and it’s got to increase,” Takaki said. “There’s no question about that.”

Ramping up pipe replacement means increasing revenues in the form of water rates — a process the board started last year to get out in front of the problem.

Year # of Main Breaks
2008 317
2009 381
2010 357
2011 300
2012 74 (as of 4/1/12)

Source: Board of Water Supply

But there are other ways to get out in front of the problem other than just replacing more miles of pipe every year.

“It’s cheaper to proactively fix a leak than it is to fix an emergency main break because there’s less damage,” said Barry Usagawa, who leads the water conservation effort for the Water Board. “We plan it. We do it during the day. We notify folks that we’re going to cut their water off so they have time to plan. We’re not paying overtime. There’s no major damage to the road.”

In April, crews spent two days outside the Surftech shop on Queen Street, listening to action underground. Civil Beat tagged along to learn more about how the Water Board is handling one of the city’s biggest headaches with an innovative leak detection program that saves more than 500 million gallons of water each year.

Coming Tuesday: Sound of Dripping Water Leads To Leaky Pipes

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