A whiteboard at the city’s water dispatch center on South McLean lists all active water main leaks.
It can get pretty filled up by August as the summer’s heat drives up demand for water and increases pressure on pipes that are often many decades old. Wichita water mains break at a 20 percent higher rate than the national standard.
Known as the leak board, it lists the big breaks that gush out huge amounts of water and the small ones that barely allow water to seep to the surface. Normally, the gushers get first priority and the “seepers” are pushed down the list.
At a time when the ongoing drought has driven the city to find creative ways to save water and ask its residents to do the same, all leaks are a priority, said Alan King, director of public works and utilities.
And, yes, that will cost money.
King said he’s still working out the specifics of those costs, but measures being considered include overtime, hiring private contractors to respond to the leaks and freeing up crews by delaying other maintenance.
“We need to see how the demand goes before we decide what additional measures we take,” he said.
King plans to fill one of three vacancies on crews that respond to leaks, bumping the total to 28 people to handle 2,387 miles of water mains.
That step was part of the city’s internal water conservation plan approved last week by the City Council in effort to save an estimated 42.5 million gallons of water annually. Various measures are being taken to extend the life of Cheney Reservoir, one of the main sources of the city’s water that is running significantly low because of the drought.
Normally, it could take up to two weeks for crews to respond to a slow leaking main. To take that long now would send conflicting messages to the public, King said.
“We need to look at what message it sends to our customers when we let water run down the street,” he added.
1 a.m. gusher
Water wasn’t running down the street last week at 15th and Salina in North Riverside. The slow leak had been creating a small, stubborn puddle in the street in front of Woodland United Methodist Church for a “quite a while,” said Joe Kowing, a retiree who volunteers to help with maintenance at the church.
After he reported the leak June 10, a city worker came out to inspect it June 11 and a crew tried to pinpoint the leak’s source the following day. Not easy to do, even with a device that listens for the sound of a small leak under the pavement.
By Friday, the city was still trying to get the leak fixed. Crews were expected to continue trying Monday.
“It’ll cost more to fix it than the cost of the water,” Kowing said, “but we can’t replace the water.”
Part of the delay in fixing the leak by the church was that the crew had to leave before it was done to avoid overtime. If the demand requires it this summer, King said crews will probably work until a leak is fixed.
Another delay in the work at that site was caused by crews having to respond to several other leaks Thursday, including a gusher after a main broke around 1 a.m. at Mount Vernon and Hillside.
A cast iron, 12-inch water main installed in 1952 split a couple of feet at the bottom of the pipe, resulting in work that is expected to keep the intersection closed until Monday. It took three hours for the crews just to get the water shut off.
And it’s only mid-June. The pace will pick up and the leak board will get crowded in coming weeks and months.
“We have to find a way to make all the leaks a priority,” King said.
255 breaks through May
Earlier this year, Mayor Carl Brewer said it would take at least $2.1 billion in repairs and upgrades over the next 30 years to fix the city’s water and sewer system. The infrastructure is in such a state because it has received little or no maintenance for more than a decade as past councils sought to hold property taxes down, he said.
The city had more than 1,000 leaks in both 2000 and 2001 before the number dropped to a decade low 367 in 2009. But as the drought created more water demand and a greater strain on the mains, the city saw 835 breaks in 2011 and 805 last year.
That works out to an average of about 34 breaks per 100 miles of mains for each of the last two years, King said. The national benchmark for breaks for each 100 miles is 27.7, according to the American Water Works Association, a Denver-based nonprofit that does research for the industry.
Through the first five months of this year, the city had repaired 255 breaks. But summer looms, so the pace undoubtedly will increase.
Low-volume leaks have been a low priority for repairs because they aren’t causing damage to streets or to private property.
“We’re just losing water,” King said.
Big leaks not only tear up streets, they also can damage private property, which could lead to claims against the city.
So from an economic standpoint, it makes sense to push the small leaks to the end of the line.
“But that was before drought,” King said. “That was before we need to save all the water we can and before we asked the public to do the same.”
King said he also needs the public to watch for leaks and report them by calling the city at 316-262-6000, a line that will take information around the clock. Unlike sewer lines, water mains can’t be inspected by cameras because water and valves block views.
That also makes it difficult to know how much water is lost through breaks.
While city crews try to periodically check for leaks by using the listening device in areas where the mains are the oldest and have a history of breaks, the prime way to spot a problem is to see water on the surface, he said.
That’s what Kowing did last week, even though the puddle at 15th and Salina had been around a while. After he was unable to use the city’s online reporting system, he called to report the leak.
“Someone mentioned it was time we get it fixed,” he said. “I agreed. I will say the city was out there faster than I’d ever seen.”