As Bay Area residents struggle to save water during a historic drought, the region's water providers have been losing about 23 billion gallons a year, a new analysis of state records reveals.
Aging and broken pipes, usually underground and out of sight, have leaked enough water annually to submerge the whole of Manhattan by 5 feet -- enough to meet the needs of 71,000 families for an entire year.
Bay Area water agencies have lost from 3 to 16 percent of their treated water, according to this newspaper's analysis of the latest reports on water that disappears before the meter. The figures are especially irritating for residents who are being forced to cut up to 20 percent of their water use and contend with the first-ever statewide restrictions on outdoor watering.
"It's just freaking people out that we're so wantonly wasting water here," said Deborah St. Julien, who watched a 2-gallon-a-minute leak bubble up in front of her neighbor's house for a month before the San Jose Water Co. fixed it.
Leaks not only waste one of California's most precious resources but damage property and cost money through lost revenue for utilities and higher rates for water users.
This newspaper's analysis of reports submitted voluntarily to the Department of Water Resources for 2010 -- the latest year statewide records are available -- shows a wide range of estimated losses.
They range from 3.5 percent in Antioch and 5.2 percent in Santa Clara to 13 percent in Los Altos and 15.75 percent in Hayward. Leaks, breaks and overflows cost the East Bay Municipal Utility District 9.2 percent, or 6.028 billion gallons, of its total water production in 2012, the district declared in a more recent report.
But with no mandatory or standard auditing practices for the state's 362 urban water suppliers, it is difficult to calculate precisely how much water the state is losing.
Reporting is now merely recommended, not required. And while some leak reports are accurate, others are just rough estimates.
"If we are to better manage our water resources, we need to know how much water is lost over its distribution system," said state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who is seeking tougher requirements to report water losses to the state through legislation, Senate Bill 1420.
"Then we need to take cost-effective steps to reduce these losses," she said.
The catastrophic water-main break last month that deluged the UCLA campus with 20 million gallons of water, destroying 300 cars and creating a 25-by-30-foot oval sinkhole about 7 feet deep, offered a vivid reminder of the fragility of our state's water systems. One of the two pipes was badly corroded; the other had five leaks before the rupture.
Pipes throughout the state are in unknown condition. But the two most common types of pipes in the Bay Area -- cast iron and asbestos cement -- are both nearing the end of their life spans. The Bay Area is filled with special risk: an unstable landscape of landslides and restless fault lines. And many of our towns sit upon clay, which expands and contracts.
"The soil is moving. Sometimes the pipe moves with it, and sometimes it doesn't," said Mike Wallis, director of operations and maintenance for EBMUD. "Joints get pulled apart."
One neighborhood in Kensington is so landslide-prone that 20 permanent "leak loggers" have been installed under streets. In Oakland, when the Hayward Fault shrugged under Highway 24 in February 2013, it broke a 24-inch main that serves more than 10,000 homes in the Oakland hills. It took more than a month to repair.
Unlike damage to roads and bridges, breaks in our vast network of underground water pipes are often hidden from view. Water may seep for days, weeks or even months until noticed.
"Leaks usually start small, but then finally give way," said Mike Simpson of M.E. Simpson Co. of Indiana, a national leader in leak detection services. "It suddenly becomes something you really don't want it to be."
Even in the best situation, some water loss is inevitable, said experts. Water flows at extreme pressure through a network of joints, valves and connections. And some reported losses aren't true leaks -- rather, they are caused by faulty meters, data-handling errors, theft or firefighting efforts.
But water providers like EBMUD are turning to technology to fight back. The agency uses acoustic devices, known as "loggers," to find leaks in water mains before they surface. More than 700 are in place, with another 500 yet to come.
The friction of water escaping a pipe makes a unique sound, detected by $600 computers the size of a soda can. It's different from the more subdued roar of normal flow.
"Sometimes you hear a loud hissing. Or something deep, the sound of a wind," said Mike Brown of EBMUD, whose vigilant acoustic monitoring makes it one of the state's leaders in leak detection.
His team finds 800 to 1,000 leaks a year in a 4,200-mile-long maze of pipes, some of which were installed in the late 1800s, when cattle were still being herded to Oakland's rail yards and electric streetcars clanked through Berkeley.
The leak detectors are so sensitive they can hear water leaking at just 1 gallon an hour, said detection plumber Tony Lopez. "It will pick up a little spray," he said.
Last week, amid the roar of Interstate 880 traffic, Brown and Lopez gazed at a large and mysterious pool of underground water discovered during the widening of the 23rd Avenue offramp.
"Sometimes you go right to a leak and find it," said Brown. "Sometimes you just have to hunt around and it takes a long time. Sometimes you don't ever find it."
The source of a leak can be miles from where you first see water, he said. It may be far uphill. Or maybe the water is traveling laterally, along an electrical conduit. In some rare instances, the leak may even be downhill from the flow.
With so many water systems showing their age, the American Water Works Association has termed this "the dawn of the replacement era." The group estimates that replacing and expanding water systems will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.
In the Bay Area, some communities are replacing miles of pipe for the first time. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for instance, is spending $4.6 billion to replace leaky pipes carrying Hetch Hetchy water. The new pipes in the project, to be completed in 2016, are designed to withstand a magnitude-7.1 earthquake on the Hayward Fault.
Last week, San Jose Water Co. announced a 15 percent jump in monthly bills, with a further unspecified increase planned for 2015, to cover the replacement costs of the most leaky pipes along its 2,400 miles of pipeline. It will replace 24 miles of pipe every year.
It is a wise long-term investment, said Madelyn Glickfeld, director of UCLA's Water Resource Center.
"In a drought emergency," she said, "we don't have water to waste this way."
Staff writer Andie Waterman contributed to this report. Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.
Much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. The pipe networks were largely built and paid for by earlier generations, and passed down to us as an inheritance. Life spans are influenced by soil conditions.
Cast iron is found in old downtown neighborhoods such as Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond. Ductile iron is more common in San Jose. Asbestos cement is found in communities such as Orinda, Walnut Creek and Lafayette. Steel, which is expensive, is reserved for major distribution pipes. PVC is used in the newest developments.
Cast iron: 1900s-1940s. Life span 75 to 115 years.
Ductile iron: 1960s-2000s: Life span 60 to110 years.
Asbestos cement: 1950s-1960s. Life span 60 to 100 years.
Steel: 1940s-2000s. Life span 90 to 100 years.
PVC: 1970s-2000s. Life span less than 70 years.