You’re Not Imagining It: Water Main Breaks Are On the Rise in Philly
There was another absolutely insane water main break in Philadelphia over the weekend. Ten million gallons of water poured onto the streets when an 1880s-era water transmission line in West Philly ruptured, forcing residents to evacuate as their homes and cars were being wrecked.
Over the past few years, there have been tons of headlines in the news like, “Water Main Break Damages Several South Philadelphia Homes,” “8 Water Main Breaks in 24 Hours in Philadelphia,” and “Philadelphia’s 3rd Water Main Break in 10 Days.” They’ve all made it seem like the city is in the midst of an epidemic of water main breaks — but, of course, the news can be misleading sometimes. So we asked the Philadelphia Water Department for statistics on ruptured water mains going back to the 1960s.
As it turns out, water main breaks are indeed on the rise.
There have been 941 water main breaks in Philly since last July, putting the city on pace to see at least 965 by the end of this fiscal year. (That assumes that there will be a minimum of about 24 additional breaks in the next two weeks, which is the average figure for June during that time period.) There haven’t been that many broken water mains since 1996, when 971 mains burst.
Here’s more data: Between 1965 and 2014, an average of about 823 water mains have broken per year (the median, FWIW, was 812). The fiscal year isn’t even over, and we’ve already surpassed that number in 2015; 2014, too, saw an above-average number of water main breaks, at 950.
What’s behind the trend?
“There are any number of reasons for the variations in number of breaks per year,” said Debra McCarty, deputy commissioner of operations at PWD. “Mild winters tend to result in less breaks, while more severe winters, such as the past two, result in more.”
Stupid severe winters. They’re partly to blame for the potholes on the street, too.
Another reason water mains break is because they’re old. There are 3,100 miles of pipes around the city, and their average age is 70 years old. As Philadelphia magazine’s Dan McQuade reported earlier this year, there is a major impediment to upgrading the infrastructure wholesale: money. “The PWD says replacing 10 percent of the system would cost $500 million over 12 years,” he wrote.
While there have been a relatively high number of water main breaks in the last couple years, it’s worth noting that the increase isn’t that extraordinary in the grand scheme of things. Take a look at the infographic below:
Over the last 50 years, the number of annual breaks has ranged from a low of 439 in 1998 to a high of 1,632 in 1977. Usually, the yearly figure has hovered between 600 and 1,100. And from 2005 to 2014, there were an average of 766 breaks each year, which is actually lower the average of 840 in the previous 40 years.
As for transmission breaks in particular, there are always just a few: four so far this year, and eight in 2014.
Also, aging, breaking water mains are hardly a problem unique to Philadelphia. In 2013, Joanne Dahme, PWD’s then-spokeswoman, told this magazine that there is a water main break somewhere in the United States every two minutes.
Repairing the nation’s water infrastructure would cost a stunning $84 billion, according to a 2011 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. That would require investment not only from cities and towns, but also states and the federal government. And seeing as how House Republicans voted to cut funding for Amtrak hours after this year’s fatal crash in Philadelphia, that won’t be easy.