They snarl traffic and disrupt business, but water main breaks have become as much a part of life on Oahu as sandals and sunscreen. But according to Board of Water Supply manager Ernest Lau, progress has been made in reducing the number and frequency of breaks.
“At this point, the numbers have come down from 2002, which was kind of a high of around 500 breaks a year,” Lau told KITV4. “We're down in the low 300 breaks (per year) for the last two or three years now, and we anticipate in 2013 to also be kind of in the low 300 number.”
So far this year, the number of water main breaks has remained fairly consistent, averaging 26.83 per month, for a total of 161 breaks through the end of June. Broken down, that’s 0.89 water main breaks per day.
"Certainly one per day is too frequent for us, and so we're definitely looking forward to many maintenance improvements to get us to a much lower number than that,” said Councilman Stanley Chang, who chairs the Committee on Public Works and Infrastructure.
According to BWS annual reports, there were 331 water main breaks in 2010, 395 in 2009 and 319 in 2008.
Lau says any further reduction in the number of water main breaks may not be possible until BWS completes a 30-year master plan at a cost of $9.5 million. The master plan hopes to identify and analyze the root causes of water main breaks, while assessing the condition of pipelines, reservoirs and pump stations. Once finished, BWS will develop a comprehensive capital improvement program with a three-decade planning horizon.
“We don't know how quickly we can get the (water main break) numbers down until we get more through the master planning process,” said Lau. “Hopefully within a year I'll have a better sense of where we're at in terms of the condition of the facilities and what we need to do in terms of a capital program.”
Lau says the BWS board of directors must find a delicate balance between reducing the number of water main breaks customers must deal with, while keeping water rates affordable. Currently residents pay $3.68 for every 1,000 gallons of water, which will rise to $4.42 by July of 2015, a 20-percent increase.
“We have to determine how do we balance providing safe and reliable water service to our customers while still keeping it affordable,” said Lau. “It’s like having a scale in front of you and trying to say, what is the appropriate balance?”
The Honolulu City Council has no say in the setting of water rates, but five members of the seven-member BWS board are appointed by the mayor and approved by the council. With water rates set to increase over the foreseeable future, Chang says he’ll be monitoring the progress of improvements to infrastructure.
“We're going to continue to monitor the situation very closely and we're going to continue to keep the pressure on to make sure that the maintenance schedule and the master plan is such that there is a reduced number of water main breaks,” said the councilman.
Meanwhile, BWS is in the process of identifying whether it can develop some of its property located at 630 S. Beretania Street to help raise revenue, thus offsetting some of the costs to ratepayers.
“We don't get any city tax revenue or state funds,” said Lau. “We have to maintain 2,100 miles of pipeline of water systems through the rate revenue we get from our customers.”
The water agency's operating budget in fiscal year 2013 was $196.74 million, of which $31.56 million was dedicated toward capital improvement projects.