Busted pipes in drought cost taxpayers millions

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by Doug Miller/ KHOU 11

khou.com

Posted on June 22, 2012 at 6:51 PM

HOUSTON—When the faucets in Miram Kovan’s townhouse dried up, she started calling Houston’s 311 help line.

On a yellow legal pad, the retired aide to a federal judge kept a written record of every call she made, scribbling notes on her conversations with city bureaucrats. A day later, as workers busted up her street and dug down to a water main, she reviewed her phone log with growing irritation.

"We need water," Kovan said. "And I’m stinky and need a bath and I’m just frustrated as all heck because, it’s like, I didn’t sleep last night. I was worried. I mean, how would you feel?"

Actually, a whole lot of Houstonians know exactly how she feels, especially after last year’s drought triggered an unprecedented wave of water main breaks.So many, in fact, that there’s no way to determine exactly how many people in the city lost their water during the drought.

But now that the longest drought in Houston’s recorded history has broken, we finally have some idea how much tax money was spent fixing all those busted mains.

"We have our arms around the problem," Mayor Annise Parker said. "It got out of control last year.  The drought was so bad and the soil movement was so extreme that we went from 200 water main breaks a day to 1,200 water main breaks a day."

As the number of broken mains skyrocketed six-fold, Houston hired outside contractors to help overwhelmed city repair crews. So the mayor and city council were repeatedly forced to authorize emergency appropriations. Since the drought began last year, city officials say, the emergency authorizations have totaled $8.5-million.

The last emergency appropriation was approved by city council earlier this week.  But the mayor warns that, even though the drought has passed, the bigger problem it exposed remains: Much of Houston’s aging infrastructure of underground water mains is already past its useful life.

"The underlying problem is still there," Parker said. "And we’re going to have to figure out a way to renew and replace more of the lines than we have in the past."

The mayor touted her administrations focus on infrastructure, but she concedes the city simply doesn’t have the money to replace old water mains as fast as she would like. But of all the problems she expected to face as mayor, she concedes she didn’t anticipate this one.

"Of all the things I anticipated, from hurricanes to fires to floods, drought was not anywhere on my list," she said. "It was the worst drought in recorded Houston history, but we responded to it and we’re dealing with it.

"And the drought didn’t cause the problems with our water pipes," she said. "What’s caused the problems with our water pipes is successive generations of administrations that didn’t put a regular renew and refresh cycle in place. We’ve done that now."

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