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Editorial: The bill comes due for California’s old water pipes

Aging and broken pipes are a big and expensive problem for California – whether the daily leaks of precious water going to waste, or a catastrophic water main failure like the recent one in Los Angeles.

After decades of neglect, the bill is coming due – in the neighborhood of $70 billion in water system fixes needed statewide, according to one estimate.

The $7.5 billion water bond on the November ballot would provide some help. The bond includes four pots of money that could potentially be used to replace or repair old pipes: $510 million in competitive grants for regional water management projects; $260 million in grants for small community wastewater projects; $260 million in grants and loans for small community safe drinking water projects; and $100 million for water use efficiency and conservation.

This, however, is primarily the responsibility of local agencies, and the tab is largely going to be paid by their customers.

In Sacramento, for instance, the City Council took the political heat in 2012 and approved three years of double-digit increases in water and sewer rates. The last of those rate hikes hit on July 1, adding a total of $19 a month to the bill for the average single-family customer.

The revenue is repaying $248 million in bonds sold last year that is being used to rehab a 90-year-old water treatment plan, install long-overdue water meters and fix decrepit water and sewer lines. The City Council received an update Tuesday night on the construction and its ad campaign (“Relics out, reliability in”). The work includes replacing old concrete and brick sewer pipes under downtown Sacramento that can overflow in heavy rain. Raw sewage in the streets would certainly tarnish all the glitzy plans centered on the planned new arena.

But the job is far from done. To get on the desired 100-year replacement schedule for water and sewer pipes, the total tab over 30 years could reach $1.2 billion for the water system, plus another $700 million for sewer, according to the city.

By contrast, Los Angeles is balking at rate increases – even after a 90-year-old water pipe burst under Sunset Boulevard on July 29 and the deluge of 20 million gallons flooded part of the UCLA campus. By one calculation, rates would have to increase 4 percent a year to come up with the $4 billion to replace every water line in Los Angeles by the time they hit 100 years old.

Even when aging pipes don’t break, they exact a cost – the loss of treated water that leaks before making it to homes and businesses. Residents who are being urged, or ordered with the threat of fines, to conserve have a right to expect better.

No one knows exactly how much water is leaking because there’s no requirement or standard reporting procedure for the state’s 362 urban water suppliers. Based on audits voluntarily submitted to the state in 2010, the average loss was 10 percent, with a range of 5 percent to 30 percent. The San Jose Mercury News calculated the losses for Bay Area water agencies at a staggering 23 billion gallons a year – enough for 71,000 families.

California’s record drought is focusing attention on our failure to adequately invest in the infrastructure that gets water to our taps. The question now is how much and how quickly we’re willing to pay to catch up.