AMWUA Blog

Sep 09 2019Share

Water Main Breaks: Planning for the Unexpected

By Warren Tenney

Every day, millions of gallons of treated water courses through miles of pipes buried deep under our feet. The water circulates through tanks and pumps, and through miles and miles of service lines that deliver water to our water meters and finally into our homes. Clean and safe water is such a precious commodity, which is why the cities invest enormous amounts of money and time preventing, detecting and fixing leaks in their vast water infrastructure.

Unexpected water line breaks happen mostly due to factors such as age, accidents and weather. They happen regardless of the time the water utility staffs dedicate to continually assessing their water and wastewater infrastructure to reduce water line breaks.  City water departments use the information from their assessments to create repair, replacement and expansion construction schedules, which helps minimize unplanned breaks.

Those unanticipated leaks and breaks are simply the reality when dealing with the expansive infrastructure that each of the ten AMWUA cities has. Collectively they maintain 30 water treatment plants, over 18,000 miles of water lines, 13,000 miles of wastewater lines, 142,000 fire hydrants and more than one million water meters. So, it is easy to understand how vital a maintenance and replacement plan is to their daily operations.

Water lines can reach nine feet in diameter and breaks in pipes that large can cause flooding and damage to roads and sometimes sidewalks. While some minor breaks can be repaired the same day with little disruption to the public, major water main breaks are far more labor intensive, and can require multiple crews operating backhoes and other large equipment. Regardless of the scale of the break, the cities strive to operate with as little disruption as possible, so they often turn valves on or off to reroute water and keep it flowing to businesses and homes. It takes a very large team of people to ensure these breaks are fixed as efficiently as possible. Often additional city workers from other departments are needed to protect buried cables and gas lines, while assistance with redirecting traffic might be a priority if it is impacting a major intersection. In addition, road repairs may be needed which requires the attention of road maintenance crews. Once the break is repaired, the water line must be flushed and the water quality tested to be certain, not only that the water line is once again clear, but to ensure water quality standards are always met.

As part of their overall plan, the cities understand the importance of monitoring their systems, which is why municipalities utilize technology to track water throughout its system. This allows them to keep their eyes on each part of the water distribution system remotely and in real-time. Operators use this technology to review water distribution pumps on a continual basis while looking for subtle signs of a problem. Typical monitoring systems also send out automated alerts when it detects an obvious change in a distribution pump, such as a large drop or spike in pressure or when an out-of-service pump unexpectedly turns on. A sudden change in a city’s pressure could point to a variety of things such as firefighters utilizing a high volume of water and pressure to put out a fire, or maybe a construction site is filling a large water tank, or there is a break in the system.

The cities do not solely depend on computers to monitor their water systems.  Employees make regular onsite field inspections of the water distribution system. Also, if the computer program is interrupted, these employees can be on site within minutes to monitor the system for leaks or other problems, and make any needed adjustments allowing the water to continue to flow, which is always the goal.

Maintaining aging and expansive water distribution and collections systems is a constant and growing expense for your city and is a major component of your city’s water rates. This is why your city water professionals are continually fine-tuning their overall plan, and funding for timely replacement of this critical infrastructure, so expensive emergency repairs and disruption in service to customers is avoided as often as possible.

Infrastructure is a constant priority for the AMWUA cities. This includes making the financial commitment to invest in the maintenance, replacement, and expansion of their water infrastructure.  And just like all types of infrastructure which see daily use – transportation, telecommunications and other utilities such as power – they age and eventually must be replaced. That’s why planning and investing are key to ensure the reliability of water supplies, not just for tomorrow, but for the long-term.


For 50 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.


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