A Flood of Broken Mains
Leaks: Baltimore's water system endures a 'really bad year' of water
main breaks. The reason? Well, it's anyone's guess.
By Laura Vozzella
Originally published April 8, 2004
Chalk it up to century-old pipes. Or newer, weaker ones.
Or the cold winter and the spring thaw. Not to mention the "shifting
sands of the Chesapeake" and some spectacularly bad luck.
Whatever the reason, more than three times a day on
average, a water main breaks in areas served by Baltimore.
And lately, they've been breaking big. As many as 200,000 customers in
northwest Baltimore County were without water for two days last month
after two major mains blew. That was the worst incident in a season
flush with bad breaks.
It's enough to suggest a new municipal slogan: Baltimore, the city that
"We've had a really bad year, and I don't know why that is," said Jay
Sakai, chief of the city Public Works Department's Bureau of Water and
Wastewater. "We've had some big problems that we wouldn't normally
Last year, there were 1,190 breaks along Baltimore's 3,400 miles of
water mains, which deliver drinking water to taps across the city and
surrounding counties. There were 1,140 breaks in 2002.
Compare that with Philadelphia, with the same amount of pipe but an
average of 788 ruptures a year. Or New York, which has 6,000 miles of
mains but 550 annual breaks. And then there's Boston, which has 1,023
miles of pipe and 35 breaks.
The number of breaks in Baltimore surprised officials in some of those
"That's an awfully high number," said Thomas Bagley, manager of
community services for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.
Baltimore officials say those comparisons might not be fair because the
other cities could keep records differently.
But no one disputes that Baltimore's broken water mains leave thousands
of customers with dry faucets and keep city work crews scrambling.
So far this year, Baltimore has had slightly fewer water main breaks
than this time last year. But this year, the breaks have been bigger.
A 36-inch line ruptured in northwest Baltimore County March 15. Water
was rerouted to a 54-inch main, which broke the next night.
"To have a situation where you have a 36 and a 54 break within two days
of each other, it's like getting struck by lightning," Sakai said.
Last week, 150 East Baltimore homes were without water for three days
after a 12-inch main broke at North Avenue and Wolfe Street.
One reason Baltimore is always digging up broken pipes has to do with
the soft, sedimentary soil they're buried in, said Kurt Kocher, a
spokesman for public works. That type of soil is especially likely to
shift with winter freezes and spring thaws, he said.
"We're in an estuary," said Kocher, a former geography teacher. "The
Hudson River is a fjord, tall cliffs carved out by glaciers. What you
have there is solid bedrock. ... How many of their pipes are buried in
bedrock and they're cradled and not going to be shifting around?"
Baltimore's pipes, by contrast, lie in "the shifting sands of the
Chesapeake," he said.
Greg Kail, a spokesman for the American Water Works Association in
Denver, said geology and other factors can make some places especially
prone to water main breaks.
"There are so many variables in a local situation -- soil differences,
climate," he said. "It's very difficult to compare what should be when
you go from one situation to another."
A "reasonable goal" for water systems in North America is 25 to 30
breaks per 100 miles of pipe per year, according to the American Water
Works Association Research Foundation.
Baltimore misses that mark, though not by much, with an average of 34
breaks per 100 miles over the past two years.
Not far behind was the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, with 33
breaks per 100 miles over the same time period. Detroit was worse off,
with an average of 45 breaks.
Several other cities met the goal, some of them relatively young,
affluent communities with moderate weather, but some of them old, poor
and in harsh climates. For every 100 miles of pipe, Phoenix had 29
breaks a year, Pittsburgh had 23, and Hartford 20. Chicago and
Providence each had 9. San Diego had 5.
Differences in record-keeping could account for Baltimore's relatively
high break rate, Sakai said. What gets reported as a water main break in
Baltimore may turn out to be a leak in a smaller service line leading
into a house, he said.
Some cities, including Providence and Hartford, include all leaks in
their figures. New York, for one, does not.
Like many older East Coast cities, Baltimore has pipes that were mostly
put down between 1900 and 1950, Sakai said. And also like its
counterparts, Baltimore spends millions each year to keep its old system
going. The city is spending $11.3 million this year on capital
improvements to its water system, including $6 million for cleaning and
lining pipes, and $2 million to install new mains.
Even with that investment, there will always be water main breaks, Sakai
said, adding that they are not the true measure of a good water system.
Baltimore's water has won taste contests, and the city recently began
bottling it as a promotional item.
"Our system without question is old," Sakai said. "You are going to have
problems. Do I think things are falling down around our ears? No."