Tucson Water plagued by aging pipes, cost of fixing them

Published: Feb. 29, 2016 at 8:06 PM MST|Updated: Apr. 25, 2016 at 9:50 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The water main break that closed the intersection of 22nd Street and Alvernon Way is an exclamation point on a problem plaguing Tucson Water.

[READ: Water line break on 22nd Street slows traffic]

Aging pipes are breaking more often these days, causing traffic issues and inconvenience to customers. There were 265 water main breaks in 2014, followed by 307 in 2015.

Tucson Water has an annual budget of about $10 million to maintain and replace aging lines, but it is not enough.

"I'd like five times that much," said Britt Klein, an operations manager with Tucson Water.

The pipe that burst on Alvernon Way is a 30" main which was installed in 1952, and has far exceeded its useful lifespan. A pipe is generally thought to last 50 years before it needs to be replaced.

A number of factors, like soil composition, may cause some pipes to need replacement far sooner.

"Even though we're not an old city, a lot of Tucson was built in the '50s, '60s and '70s," said Tucson Water spokesman Fernando Molina. "A lot of that pipe has already lived beyond its age."

After a 96" water line break flooded a west-side neighborhood in 1999 and a sewage line break spilled millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Santa Cruz in 2002, local utilities are scrambling to ensure such incidents don't happen again.

Tucson Water has installed new technology in its bigger pipes which listens for potential problems 24/7 and averted a catastrophic break in 2012. It cost $5 million to fix the 1999 water break, so the system has paid for itself. But the smaller lines, which are harder to predict, can be costly.

Fixing Monday's break on 22nd Street will cost about $100,000 because sidewalks, trees and part of a parking lot need to be taken out, then replaced.

"Ideally, you want to be able to say, 'time out,' to go in and rehab before it fails catastrophically," Klein said. "That's the most cost effective way of doing business."

But even though was rates go up about eight percent annually, it would take much more than that to fix a system to ensure there were no more water line breaks. That would likely be counterproductive.

Tucson Water said it has hundreds of miles of pipeline that is more than 60 years old, even up to 80 years old.

That line will eventually be replaced. Whether is happens before or after a break is a matter of luck.

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