Image: water gushes from a broken water main in L.A.
Mike Meadows  /  AP file
On Sept. 5, a large underground water main burst under Coldwater Canyon Blvd., sending a flood of water rushing through neighborhood homes and businesses.
updated 9/24/2009 9:16:21 AM ET 2009-09-24T13:16:21

Torrents of water swept cars off streets and barbecues out of backyards in Los Angeles in recent weeks, but the floods are coming from the ground rather than the sky.

Not a drop of rain has fallen on the city since June 5, according to the National Weather Service, but aging water pipes have blown up at a rate of more than one a day. Residents of the drought-stricken city are getting angry, muddy and wet as they watch millions of gallons of water wash away.

The number of breaks — 36 during the first three weeks of September — isn't unusual for a city the size of Los Angeles, said James McDaniel, senior assistant general manager with the Department of Water and Power. Rather it's the severity of the breaks, including one that created a sinkhole so big it nearly swallowed a fire truck.

"It's not what causes a break but why did the break break in such a way that it causes this much damage," McDaniel told a City Council panel Wednesday. His agency has appointed an expert panel to study the city's geology, its 7,200 miles of pipeline, its pattern of water use and any other potential causes.

Meanwhile, residents wonder if their street will be the next to spout a geyser the size of Old Faithful. A recent break that size in Studio City unleashed water 2 to 3 feet in streets, closing businesses, flooding homes and garages, and carrying away patio furniture.

"It's not our fault. We didn't know we were living next to such a dangerous situation," said Robert Lee as he stood on the porch of his home on a sunny, 90-degree morning shortly after the deluge and surveyed what was left of his front yard.

Geyser on the street
He had been standing in the driveway admiring his brother-in-law's new car, Lee said, when they heard a rumble and looked down to see water at their feet.

They were walking toward the source, a small leak in the street, when the geyser erupted from a 95-year-old trunk line that rained mud, water and rocks. The water flooded the lower half of Lee's split-level home and washed away his front yard and driveway.

"We lost the videotapes of all our children's birthday parties," he said, shaking his head. "You can't put a price on that."

Down the block, Tulsy Ball pointed to an empty garage with a water ring nearly 3 feet high.

"That's my production office," the independent TV producer said. Nearby, sat a mud-caked pile of expensive film-editing equipment.

Among the theories on possible causes are changes in water habits since the city began limiting lawn watering to twice a week because of the drought.

"Potentially it could cause a surge in flow," said Richard Little, who heads the University of Southern California's Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy. "Couple that together with old brittle pipes and that's not a good recipe."

Old pipes?
Or it could just be the old pipes, says City Councilman Dennis Zine, whose district has been the site of several breaks.

The city's water system was put in place by William Mulholland, the self-taught engineer who built the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the revolutionary, gravity-flow system of pipes and channels that carries water from mountains and valleys more than 200 miles away.

The system allowed Los Angeles to grow from a dusty town of 102,000 people in 1900 to a metropolis of nearly 4 million today, but some pipes are as old as the aqueduct itself, completed in 1913.

The DWP has aggressively replaced old pipes in the past two years, but Zine said work crews are finding themselves unable to keep pace with the worn-out pipes.

"My prediction is there will be more of these things," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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