The True Cost Of Water Damages

Water & Sewer Pipelines: The Quiet Stakeholder Group

Water doesn’t explode, burn, or electrocute people. Sure, water damages are inconvenient, but nobody dies from a water line hit, right? Wrong. In 2008, two men were working on a pipe inside a 10- foot trench. An excavator hit a nearby water line, flooding the trench and killing both workers.

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Another myth we hear is that water and sewer lines are not expensive to repair. In January 2013, a water main in Minneapolis was hit and 14 million gallons of water flooded a section of downtown. The hard costs and societal costs were staggering:

• Repair costs alone were estimated to be $325,000.
• Multiple vehicles within a nearby parking garage were submerged, including 30 postal trucks. Replacing only 20 of those trucks was estimated at over $500,000.
• Dozens of businesses with no water were forced to close, forfeiting thousands in lost revenue.
• Employees were sent home with no pay and the Federal Reserve Bank was reduced to essential staff only.
• At least 20 locations were required to have their water tested for bacterial infection and toxins like pesticides & metals.
• Traffic was a nightmare due to the flooded state of the streets and the frigid January temperatures.

Certainly, excavators do not want to hit water & sewer lines and the facility owners themselves want to prevent damage to the pipelines. However, water & sewer pipeline owners, usually municipal utilities, don’t tend to be as proactive about damage prevention as gas & oil and fiber optic cable owners. This is not meant to be an indictment of this group of stakeholders, but in an industry that bases proactive damage prevention efforts on the use of permanent pipeline markers and active involvement in the Common Ground Alliance and Damage Prevention Councils, they do lag. All stakeholders would benefit from having more water & sewer facility owners involved so their voices can be heard.

According to Michael Grinnell, Senior Engineering Technician with Gewalt Hamilton Associates, “When you must shut water off in an emergency, and you are affecting daycares, schools, doctor’s offices, and residences with children and the elderly, the cost of the repair is not a factor compared to the impact you are having on these customers. Regardless of fault, the burden of the damage falls back on the utility.”

The most recent Common Ground Alliance (CGA) DIRT report, which tracks damages to all buried facilities nationally, shows that installing water & sewer lines accounts for 36.7% of all damages. This makes the installation of sewer & water lines the #1 known cause of damage to the nation’s buried infrastructure.

Obviously, no contractor wants to hit a water pipeline, or any other buried facility, and water & sewer facility owners certainly want to protect their pipelines. So, why do water & sewer pipelines get hit? For purposes of this article, I am citing anecdotal stories and circumstantial evidence. These observations are not intended to lump all facility owners into one group; many water & sewer utilities are proactive about damage prevention. These are real-world situations that I have seen, or comments that have been made to me by industry professionals, that highlight the very real issues facing damage prevention in the water & sewer industry.

Some states mandate water & sewer utilities belong to the One Call system, which ensures they will get locate requests. However, unlike the gas & oil industry, which must comply with PHMSA regulations, water & sewer pipelines do not have a national regulatory agency mandating permanent marking systems and public awareness initiatives.

Robert Edwards, Water Operation Supervisor, Planning and Inspection with Citizen’s Energy Group, has a thought-provoking perspective, “I realize when a gas line is damaged there is the potential threat of a spark and explosion with fire, but when a water line is damaged, there is the threat of extreme property damage, flooding, possible drowning and bacteria and toxins entering the potable water lines and being consumed – resulting in sickness or death. It’s important to remember that water utility pipes are the only underground utility carrying a product people put into their bodies!”

“Water delivery systems are pressurized,” he continues, “but when a damage occurs, in most cases the pipe is destroyed and the pressure is flowing in one direction forcing sand, rock, and other debris into the pipe. A trained valve operator conducts the shutdown to minimize the amount of debris pushed into the water main. When pressure is lost, the damaged section of water main is isolated and extensive testing takes place and the main is disinfected if needed. Not every water main is subject to bacteria and toxins, but there is a ‘threat’ if a water main is not shut down by a competent, trained utility representative.”

CGA DIRT further reports when a locate is requested, there is a less than 1% chance of a damage occurring. Over 23.5% of damages were caused by no locate being requested. Permanent markers erected near pipelines remind excavators to request a locate and provides other pertinent information to the excavator. Markers are effective in all terrains. Low profile markers for urban areas can be glued to curbs, installed in lawns, or embedded in streets and sidewalks. Since water & sewer pipelines in general are not adequately marked on the surface (as compared to gas & oil), this may be a contributing factor to increased damages.

As an industry, significant effort is not placed on involvement in the national damage prevention effort. This may be because many water & sewer utilities have very small service areas compared to gas & oil, electric, and communications companies, which naturally creates a more local focus within the companies. Only 4.9% of the more than 1,600 attendees at the 2019 CGA 811 Excavation Safety Conference & Expo (which focuses on damage prevention) were water & sewer stakeholders. Meanwhile, 12,000-plus water professionals attend the 2018 AWWA Annual Conference, and more than 22,000 attended WEFTEC. While I endorse these organizations and encourage water professionals to continue their participation, I also encourage stakeholders to reconsider budgetary allocations to include damage prevention education as a necessary part of the care and protection of their buried facilities.

Without pressure to make a profit, it can be hard for a public utility to justify investing money in damage prevention to avoid future damages. There is also a general misconception that the utility will recover all the costs of the damage from whomever caused the damage. Even if the contractor or locator is 100% at fault (and keep in mind, many times it is neither the locator nor the contractor’s fault), you never recover all the true costs. (See the Water & Sewer Repair Cost Checklist on page 24 for a look at the costs you may not be considering.)

“The effect of a line hit goes well beyond any inconvenience to the contractor that hit the line. With today’s social media and direct links to elected officials, the utility is placed in a spotlight and contractors have little or no burden for the damage they created,” says Grinnell.

An experienced contractor would never use this as an excuse, but these are famous last words many facility owners have heard many times over the years. Directional drill operators have been known to bore on top of water or sewer marks, knowing (or hoping) the pipes are deeper than his bore rod.

There is a significant number of old water & sewer pipelines in the ground that are not locatable with conventional EM locators. GPR can be an alternative to locating the pipeline in many cases, but not in every case. If it can’t be located, it is hard to avoid hitting it.

To truly understand the total cost of a damaged water & sewer line, review the checklist. It is the result of asking many industry professionals with first-hand knowledge to share their experiences. The accompanying checklist may help you realize that a proactive damage prevention program can save you money and improve public safety.

A great way to learn and get more involved is to join the national Common Ground Alliance, or any of the 70-plus Regional CGA Partners, and your local One Call.



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