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Old pipe breaks, floods parts of LA

By BRIAN MELLEY and MICHAEL R. BLOOD The Associated Press

This article was published July 31, 2014 at 5:15 a.m.

In this Tuesday, July 29, 2014 photo, a person walks through a flooded parking structure at UCLA after a ruptured 93-year-old, 30-inch water main left the Los Angeles campus awash in 8 million gallons of water in the middle of California's worst drought in decades. The water also flooded the school's storied basketball court, which underwent a major renovation less than two years ago.

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 at Los Angeles into a mucky mess points to the risks and expense many cities face with miles of waterlines that were installed generations ago.

The pipe break that sent more than 20 million gallons of water cascading from a water main happened in the midst of California's worst drought in decades and on the same day state fines took effect for residents who waste water by hosing down driveways or using hoses without nozzles to wash cars.

Much of the pipe that carries drinking water in the country dates to the first half of the 20th century, with some installed before Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House.

Age inevitably takes a toll. There are 240,000 breaks a year, according to the National Association of Water Cos.

"Much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life," the American Society of Civil Engineers said in a report last year, noting that the cost of replacing pipes in coming decades could exceed $1 trillion.

The Association of Water Cos. says nearly half of the pipes in the U.S. are in poor shape, and the average age of a broken water main is 47 years. In Los Angeles, 1 million feet of piping has been delivering water for at least 100 years.

The country has reached a point where vast lengths of pipe are 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 said. "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 Tuesday near UCLA shot up a 30-foot geyser that sent water down storm drains and onto campus. The pipe was still gushing 1,000 gallons a minute Wednesday, and officials said repairs could take another two days.

UCLA officials said six facilities were damaged and about 960 vehicles remained trapped Wednesday, with many submerged.

At its peak, water was gushing out of the break in the riveted steep pipe at a rate of 75,000 gallons a minute. The amount of water spilled could serve more than 100,000 Los Angeles Department of Water and Power customers for a day.

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 pipe must be dry for repair work to begin, but on Wednesday leaky valves above the break allowed water to continue seeping in. Shutting off valves and pipes creates the risk of more ruptures in the 7,200-mile system, especially on hilly areas in and around campus.

Recent years have seen a series of pipe breaks that have prompted promises to expand repairs and replacements. There's been talk of a water rate increase to speed the work.

In 2009, several dozen breaks -- one that sent up a gusher the size of Old Faithful -- flooded streets.

There was disagreement on the cause, but one independent investigation found that the culprit was a city law that rationed lawn watering for conservation. With residents restricted to watering only two days a week, pressure fluctuated in the city's water system, straining aging and corroded cast iron pipes until they burst, it concluded.

Information for this article was contributed by Raquel Maria Dillon, Christopher Weber, Bob Jablon, Beth Harris and Andrew Dalton of The Associated Press.

A Section on 07/31/2014

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