Image: Broken water main in Houston
Pat Sullivan  /  AP
A broken water main was being replaced in Houston, Texas, on July 27.
By Miguel Llanos Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 8/16/2011 5:45:33 PM ET 2011-08-16T21:45:33

It's not just hot and dry in Houston, the city's also losing water at an alarming rate due to water main breaks — 700 a day, the mayor said Tuesday.

Other cities across the central U.S. — which has had the worst of this summer's heat — are also seeing more breaks than usual as older pipes feel the strain from both sides: increased water use builds pressure from inside pipes, while dry soil shrinks away, leaving space on the outside of pipes for the inside pressure to burst through.

While many homeowners know the frustration of frozen pipes bursting "it can be surprising to know that high heat can also put stress on a pipe and cause it to break," Greg Kail, spokesman for the American Water Works Association, told msnbc.com.

"The nationwide infrastructure is getting older," he added, "and when pipes begin to corrode and weaken they're more susceptible to breaks brought on by temperature conditions."

In Houston, water rationing began this week and a frustrated Mayor Annise Parker said that was largely due to the water main breaks.

"Normally, in a summer we have 200 water main breaks a day over our 7,000 miles of pipes," she told KPRC TV. "Right now we're over 700 a day and we have a difficult time maintaining the water pressure."

About 40 crews are working on repairing broken water mains, officials said.

The rationing bans residents from outdoor watering more than twice a week and it has to be done between 8 p.m. to 10 a.m.

"While these restrictions are mandatory, we will begin with warnings and an informational campaign because the goal is voluntary compliance," Parker said in a statement Monday. "For those who insist on not being good neighbors, citations will follow."

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Houston on Monday also saw its 15th straight day at 100 degrees or worse, breaking its previous record, set in 1980. The trend should continue for at least the rest of the week.

Other cities dealing with a backlog of water main breaks include Corpus Christi, Texas, San Antonio, Texas, and Oklahoma City.

In Kemp, Texas, a town of some 1,500 people about 45 miles southeast of Dallas, residents lost their water for three days last week after water tanks went dry due to drought and water main breaks.

Walmart came to the rescue by trucking in palettes of water, and city hall provided water only for non-drinking purposes.

Image: Map of water main repairs
This map by the City of Houston shows more than 4,300 water main repairs (in green) made between June 1 and Aug. 17.

Nationally, the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded the U.S. water infrastructure as a D- and noted that many water mains are beyond their designed life span of 65-95 years.

"Leaking pipes lose an estimated 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water a day," the society said in its most recent report card.

"Drinking water systems face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion in funding needed to replace aging facilities that are near the end of their useful life and to comply with existing and future federal water regulations," it added.

Kail, the AWWA spokesman, notes that most of the nation's water pipes were installed in three periods: the late 1800s, the 1920s and the post World War II era.

"In many parts of the country those pipes are all wearing out at about the same time," he says, noting that a 2001 AWWA study estimated it would cost $250 billion to repair or replace aging water pipes.

Cities can either fix the pipes before or after they break, but before is much cheaper, Kail argues. Much like a car, he says, "if you invest along the way you're not going to be hit with the big bills later."

The AWWA hopes to get a bill sponsored in Congress that would provide low-cost loans for public entities to make those investments at a time of tight budgets.

"If we simply defer those costs, thinking that other more visible things are more urgent, the price tag is going to go up considerably," Kail says.

"Communities are going to have to make some hard decisions," he adds. "Your water pipes are out of sight and out of mind usually until there's a break or interruption of service. When water systems do fail it doesn't take long for a community to understand their value."

Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Deadly heat

  1. Transcript of: Deadly heat

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: We turn now to the weather and the heat wave that seems like it will never end. Temperatures reach well above 100 degrees today from Oklahoma City to Dallas to Shreveport and Valdosta . And a huge part of the central and southern US has been coping with 100 degree temperatures for the past 24 days straight. Life has to go on, but it's not easy, especially for the young and elderly. Here's NBC's Janet Shamlian .

    JANET SHAMLIAN reporting: High school football up against a punishing opponent, unrelenting triple-digit heat.

    Mr. STEVE GLEAVES (St. John's School Football Coach): That's why we do it in practice like this.

    SHAMLIAN: At St. John's School in Houston they're on defense.

    Mr. GLEAVES: When they're tired, you're not going to get anything out of them anyway. So there's -- it's time to get them out, let them get a sip of water, get somebody else in there and work the drill.

    SHAMLIAN: In Georgia , a solemn memorial for a football player who died after collapsing at practice. Doctors say 16-year-old Forest Jones was a victim of heat stroke .

    Unidentified Woman: We're just walking around, checking on the seniors to make sure they're all right.

    SHAMLIAN: In Baltimore , volunteers are checking in on the elderly, with the heat wave now in its second month.

    JIM CANTORE reporting: This is just unprecedented. According to NOAA , we set nearly 9,000 heat related records in the month of July, including several all-time records for any month.

    SHAMLIAN: In Dallas , an elderly woman died after her air conditioning unit was stolen. Her son says he found her unconscious in her stifling home. Dallas police say reports of similar thefts are coming in now every day and that thieves are just ripping these units right out of people's windows. There was rain, but it came in the form of unwanted flash flooding in Charlotte , where children had to be rescued from an apartment and drivers from their trapped cars. One person was killed. Cell phone video shows rain water flooding into a hotel lobby near the airport. Back in the frying pan, cooling centers have opened. The problem is most close at sundown, when the temperature is often still in triple digits. Janet Shamlian , NBC News, Houston.

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