Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Flood

Photo courtesy of NBC Los Angeles

Tuesday afternoon, we saw what can happen when one hundred year old infrastructure collapses.  A water main ruptured north of the UCLA campus sending 20 million gallons of precious, drought-year water cascading south to flood the campus and cause damage that is still being tallied.  The website BuzzFeed put together a nice graphic showing just how much water was lost in comparison to typical household usage.  Suffice to say, 20 million gallons represents approximately four percent of total water usage for the city on any given day, according to the DWP.  And this comes in the middle of a drought year where cities and local communities in California are enacting new laws to make it a criminal offense to water a lawn or wash down a driveway.

This break is only one in a series of water main ruptures and sinkholes that have plagued the city water system over the last few years as aging pipes and mains begin to fail.  The funds necessary to replace this infrastructure across the city would total millions of dollars and would result in losses in revenue as well as major problems for commuters as whole streets are torn up to reach the failing pipes.  However, to wait for crippling collapses like Tuesday’s fiasco is to court certain disaster.  UCLA announced late in the week that several buildings and athletic fields suffered major damage resulting in millions of dollars in repairs.

With the 405 project in the Sepulveda Pass still in progress, the closing of Sunset Boulevard for repairs made traveling to the west side of the city from the valley a challenge.  This only highlights another problem:  even if the city can find the funding to replace aging infrastructure, the time involved in completing the projects means traffic problems for commuters, noise issues for residents in the areas, and interruption of city services.  The 405 project to widen the freeway and replace aging bridges has gone on for so long that it is questionable whether it has been worth all the trouble and inconvenience for a simple one lane addition.

In the valley, the east-west streets in Studio City have been torn up for some time now.  Often to come west, traffic must go as far north as Chandler Boulevard to cut over.  These areas are filled with driving hazards like steel plates covering trenches, sharp objects that can puncture tires, and heavy equipment that presents obstructions that prevent drivers from seeing oncoming traffic and pedestrians.

The reality of living in the city is that things must be maintained and refurbished, especially in the case of roads and highways.  Los Angeles faces two challenges:  one, finding the funds to repair the aging infrastructure to avoid disasters like the Sunset Boulevard water main break; two, finding a way to complete these projects expeditiously so that people can get to work and school on time in their daily commutes.  Public transportation has improved in the last few years, but we are a long way from buses and subways being the preferred mode for getting around the city.

In L.A., we always seem one slim margin away from disaster.  I shudder to think what would happen here if our water became undrinkable, as it did in Toledo, Ohio this weekend.  We talk a lot about being prepared for emergencies.  We hold drills several times a year for earthquakes and other natural disasters.  Yet, when the brush fire breaks out, the street ruptures under pressure from broken water mains and natural gas leaks, or civil unrest boils over into the streets, our city is paralyzed.  As our streets and freeways face never-ending congestion, these issues will only become more prominent and dangerous.

The issue Tuesday with shutting down the leak more quickly had to do with increasing pressure on other aging mains in the area risking further ruptures.  This is unacceptable.  If it means repealing Proposition 13, the property tax initiative signed into law in 1978, so be it.  That measure is often cited when we are faced with libraries closing, schools being underfunded, and infrastructure collapsing.  Tuesday, we watched 20 million gallons bleed away into the streets and ultimately into the storm drains, lost to us in this drought year, and it seems with global climate change, the drought may be with us a long time, maybe even permanently.  Somehow, things have to change.


Rafi said...

Luckily, any engineer will tell you, water in the storm drains is ultimately cleaned and put back into the system at some point. Although not readily usable now, it's not completely wasted either.

On a side note, any engineer would tell you that our infrastructure is horrible. The nations infrastructure averages a D+ or something like that. A wise professor once told me, "The surest way to make a great nation fall is to starve its people and ignore the infrastructure."


Paul L. Martin said...

Thanks Rafi, for reading and commenting. Your professor is wise and insightful. I also fear he or she is dead right about our crumbling infrastructure. Take care.