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Marketplace
The Weak Link: The state of infrastructure

L.A. installs water pipes that can survive disaster

Sarah Gardner Jun 17, 2015
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Los Angeles water officials say we have a lot to learn from the Japanese when it comes to protecting water infrastructure from natural disaster. Japan has severe earthquakes, and for almost 40 years the Kubota Corporation, a competitor of Caterpillar, has made quake-resistant ductile-iron water pipes. Underground water pipes can break in an earthquake, cutting off water supply to streets and sometimes entire neighborhoods.

 Two years ago Los Angeles became the first city in the U.S. to install them. They’re designed so they don’t pull apart at the joints when the earth moves. Engineer Craig Davis, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s earthquake expert, says the pipes have withstood a 9.0 magnitude quake in Japan. “This pipe has survived 10 feet of ground movement and it hasn’t even leaked. So that’s very significant.”

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lowers a quake-resistant water pipe in downtown Los Angeles. (Credit: Vanessa Smith)

Los Angeles is testing the pipe in five locations around the city. The pipe is almost double the cost of conventional water pipe, so quake-proofing the entire city would be prohibitively expensive, but also probably unnecessary. Some parts of Los Angeles are much more prone to liquefaction than others. The idea, according to LADWP’s Marty Adams, is to use the Japanese-made pipes in the most critical and vulnerable places, including streets serving hospitals and key civic buildings. “When we have a pipe coming in for replacement, we’ll ask if it should be earthquake resistant.”

The city has over 7,000 miles of pipe and has already replaced some of the oldest, most corroded pipe with new, regular ductile iron pipe that’s “almost hermetically sealed” so the soil never touches the pipe, according to Adams. Last summer a 93-year-old water main under Sunset Boulevard ruptured and flooded part of the UCLA campus, becoming “the poster child of infrastructure needs,” Adams says.

A BMW is surrounded by water on Sunset Blvd., near the campus of UCLA after a water main rupture in 2014. (Jabin Botsford/Copyright © 2014. Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with Permission.) 

LADWP officials say quake-resistant pipes will help limit the number of water main breaks in “The Big One.” Davis and Adams are acutely aware of what can happen to water infrastructure during an earthquake. They both were working for the department in 1994 when the Northridge quake hit. The city had to repair more than 1,500 breaks, Adams says, and according to the state Office of Emergency Services, over 48,000 homes were cut off from running water. Davis says the quake “changed his whole understanding” about infrastructure vulnerability. “It’s essential we have a seismic resilience program.”


Marketplace is teaming up with Waze to look at transportation infrastructure across the U.S. Click here to find out how you can be a part of our series and report bad infrastructure on your own commute. 

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