700 WATER MAIN BREAKS IN HOUSTON, TEXAS -- A DAY
Other cities across the central U.S. — which has had the worst of this summer's heat — are also seeing more breaks than usual as older pipes feel the strain from both sides: increased water use builds pressure from inside pipes, while dry soil shrinks away, leaving space on the outside of pipes for the inside pressure to burst through.
A broken water main was being replaced in Houston, Texas, on July 27.
While many homeowners know the frustration of frozen pipes bursting "it can be surprising to know that high heat can also put stress on a pipe and cause it to break," Greg Kail, spokesman for the American Water Works Association, told msnbc.com.
"The nationwide infrastructure is getting older," he added, "and when pipes begin to corrode and weaken they're more susceptible to breaks brought on by temperature conditions."
In Houston, water rationing began this week and a frustrated Mayor Annise Parker said that was largely due to the water main breaks.
"Normally, in a summer we have 200 water main breaks a day over our 7,000 miles of pipes," she told KPRC TV. "Right now we're over 700 a day and we have a difficult time maintaining the water pressure."
About 40 crews are working on repairing broken water mains, officials said.
The rationing bans residents from outdoor watering more than twice a week and it has to be done between 8 p.m. to 10 a.m.
"While these restrictions are mandatory, we will begin with warnings and an informational campaign because the goal is voluntary compliance," Parker said in a statement Monday. "For those who insist on not being good neighbors, citations will follow.
Houston on Monday also saw its 15th straight day at 100 degrees or worse, breaking its previous record, set in 1980. The trend should continue for at least the rest of the week.
Other cities dealing with a backlog of water main breaks include Corpus Christi, Texas, San Antonio, Texas, and Oklahoma City.
In Kemp, Texas, a town of some 1,500 people about 45 miles southeast of Dallas, residents lost their water for three days last week after water tanks went dry due to drought and water main breaks.
Walmart came to the rescue by trucking in palettes of water, and city hall provided water only for non-drinking purposes.
Nationally, the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded the U.S. water infrastructure as a D- and noted that many water mains are beyond their designed life span of 65-95 years.
"Leaking pipes lose an estimated 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water a day," the society said in its most recent report card.
"Drinking water systems face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion in funding needed to replace aging facilities that are near the end of their useful life and to comply with existing and future federal water regulations," it added.
Kail, the AWWA spokesman, notes that most of the nation's water pipes were installed in three periods: the late 1800s, the 1920s and the post World War II era.
"In many parts of the country those pipes are all wearing out at about the same time," he says, noting that a 2001 AWWA study estimated it would cost $250 billion to repair or replace aging water pipes.
Cities can either fix the pipes before or after they break, but before is much cheaper, Kail argues. Much like a car, he says, "if you invest along the way you're not going to be hit with the big bills later."
The AWWA hopes to get a bill sponsored in Congress that would provide low-cost loans for public entities to make those investments at a time of tight budgets.
"If we simply defer those costs, thinking that other more visible things are more urgent, the price tag is going to go up considerably," Kail says.
"Communities are going to have to make some hard decisions," he adds. "Your water pipes are out of sight and out of mind usually until there's a break or interruption of service. When water systems do fail it doesn't take long for a community to understand their value."
Reuters contributed to this report.
Aug. 17, 2011