California’s Water Infrastructure Issues Large but Typical of Those Throughout the U.S.

Even in a state accustomed to complex and intractable water delivery issues, recent developments in California reveal the appalling condition of that state’s water infrastructure and highlight the problems that all states face in this area.

First, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Mountain Tunnel, a key part of the Hetch Hetchy water system which supplies 2.6 million Bay Area residents and businesses, is at risk of a “catastrophic collapse” and needs to be repaired or replaced.

Public officials have apparently long been aware that significant work is needed on the 89-year old tunnel but the PUC has to date given priority to upgrading water infrastructure thought to be vulnerable to fail in an earthquake. The PUC is now faced with the decision of whether to reinforce the tunnel, which would require shutting it down for two months at a time for up to 10 years at an estimated cost of $100 million, or build a new one at a price of $630 million.

“The risk right now is that the tunnel lining could continue to fail and, at some point, that might restrict our ability to get flow through it,” said PUC executive Steve Ritchie. “That would be catastrophic to us – any rapid failure that results in the reduction of water flow by 25 percent. That’s a big deal.” By some estimates, the tunnel’s collapse would cut off, for months, 85 percent of the water needed by residents, businesses and community agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area.

And on an equally distressing front, a new analysis of California state records by the San Jose Mercury News revealed that Bay Area residents have been losing about 23 billion gallons of water a year as a result of leaky pipes. According to the report, aging and broken water pipes have leaked enough water annually to submerge the island of Manhattan by five feet, enough to meet the needs of 71,000 families for an entire year. This news is especially disturbing to residents who are being forced to significantly cut water use due to the state’s severe draught.

For more information on the Mountain Tunnel issue, click here. To read more about the reported leaks in the Bay Area, click here.

Together with the disastrous water-main break last month that flooded the UCLA campus with 20 million gallons of water (see our August 6 blog for details), these developments are a painful reminder of the fragile state of California’s – and other states’ – water infrastructure systems. As we have said before, these incidents attract media attention because of their size and widespread impact, but they are just a few examples of water infrastructure failures that affect communities every day all over the United States. CWC staff continues to follow these developments and is committed to raising Congressional awareness of the need for funds and resources to address this problem.


About Clean Water Council

The Clean Water Council (CWC) is a group of national organizations representing underground construction contractors design professionals, manufacturers and suppliers, labor unions and other committed to ensuring a high quality of life through sound environmental infrastructure. Working in concert, CWC's 39 national organizations, advocate federal legislation and policies that will promote clean water and improve the nation's failing infrastructure.​
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