Pictured: A submerged Bobcat skid steer and a pool of water from a main line break, threatening to flood a house.  Photo courtesy David Goldstein

by David Goldstein

Can someone be regarded as a hero if they are just doing their job? Is someone heroic if their essential job puts their safety at risk, but the danger is posed by the potential for an industrial accident, rather than from being shot by a bad guy or burned by a fire? 

Workers who respond to main line water breaks are heroic because water shoots out of these pipes at up to 10,000 gallons per minute, threatening anyone or anything nearby with submersion or ground collapse.

As water from a line break is wasted at rates unimaginable to anyone who has seen no flow faster than what can fit through a sink faucet, these 24/7 on-call workers respond to phone calls, sometimes in the middle of the night. They rush to sites, run towards danger, and jump into muddy ditches, sometimes digging in the wet and cold for hours before a pipe can be isolated, shut off and repaired.

Recently, Ventura County Water and Sanitation workers Joe Valdivia, Evan Martinez, Jairo Menjvar, Sam Gonzalez, Mark Sepulveda, Raul Ruiz, Ed Garcia, Tim Brown, Michael Flores, Fausto Esqueda and Joseph Ortega received a Ventura County Public Works “Challenge Coin” award for their response to one particularly difficult main line break. 

The main water line break in Somis. Photo courtesy of David Goldstein

Their challenge started on June 16, when an electronic monitoring system reported large pressure differences in adjacent portions of water line. Both the water superintendent and water distribution supervisor were on vacation, but Valdivia took the lead, sending three teams to investigate. One team, consisting of Martinez, Menjivar, Gonzalez and Sepulveda found the cause. A 10-inch water pipe was broken under an orchard, spewing thousands of gallons per minute. Water had already engulfed construction equipment and was on the verge of flooding an adjacent house before workers stopped the flow and pumped out the pit.

This leak was caused by a contractor who had been operating an excavator without following the Dig Alert process, hit a pipe, and did not report the problem. The contractor reimbursed the county for expenses and water losses, but main line breaks are unfortunately common. For example, the city of Ventura responds to over 20 such breaks per year, according to Stephen Glenn, Environmental Services Specialist. 

Quick crew responses save lives, property and water while avoiding disruption of daily life. For example, Andy Flores and Dale Reynolds, of the Camarillo Water Division, recently detected, isolated, shut off and fixed a main line break at the Camarillo Outlet Center in the middle of the day without requiring the shut-down of any businesses. 

Workers repairing the main water line break in Somis on June 16, 2021. Photo courtesy of David Goldstein.

In addition to detection through pressure monitoring, the city of Thousand Oaks uses Leak Loggers, an acoustic technology. With receptors on metal pipes, monitoring staff can “hear” water escaping. It would be too expensive to monitor the city’s entire 232 miles of main line all the time, so two workers spend one hour per day moving 12 detectors, cycling through the city’s entire system every three years. 

Even with this technology, repair crews are alerted to most leaks through phone calls. If you see an unexplained puddle, especially one growing from a source underneath the surface, call your water purveyor.  

Some cities, such as Ventura and Thousand Oaks, have “zero tolerance” standards for runoff, so even if a puddle turns out to be from a source other than a broken line, reporting it can still result in water savings when inspectors follow up.

Service line breaks are far more common than main line breaks. Service lines — running from main lines to meters — are most vulnerable at the point where they connect to meters. This type of break is usually a steady drip, rather than a gush, so residents should occasionally check their meter box for flooding. To check for leaks on your own side of the meter, turn off all the water in the house and check the meter to ensure it is not registering flow.

The number to call to report leaks depends on the water purveyor in the area. Contact the phone number on your water bill, and notice if the purveyor has a different number outside normal business hours. Delay in activating local heroic crews can waste water and endanger lives.

David Goldstein, Environmental Resource Analyst, with Ventura County Public Works Agency, may be contacted at david.goldstein@ventura.org or 805-658-4312.