Flood of questions after new rupture

A second burst water line in the San Fernando Valley in less than 72 hours -- creating a sinkhole that nearly consumed a firetruck -- prompted concern about the city’s aging pipe system and criticism that officials have moved too slowly to upgrade it.

The sinkhole appeared Tuesday morning in Valley Village, about two miles from the spot where a 95-year-old trunk line failed late Saturday night, sending a 10-foot torrent of mud and water into the streets of Studio City and inundating homes and businesses.

The incidents follow what Councilman Tom LaBonge said had been “a rash” of water-line breaks around his district in recent weeks, including some in Hancock Park, Los Feliz, Hollywood and Koreatown. He said he would formally ask the Department of Water and Power today to brief the council on the situation.

“There is an epidemic going on. . . . It seems too coincidental that all these things are failing. We don’t realize how old our system is. It’s really the same pipes that have been here 100 years,” he said, noting that some had been installed under the direct supervision of William Mulholland himself, the storied architect of the city’s water network.

DWP officials, however, said that the leaks were nothing out of the ordinary -- city pipes fail about 1,400 times a year, a decrease from the recent past -- and that the city was making great progress on a $4-billion program to upgrade its subterranean water system.

“We can’t always be ahead of what is going to happen,” said DWP General Manager David Nahai, noting that the system is “aging and deteriorating.” But he added that the department “has an aggressive program in place to do the repairs necessary.” DWP officials also said Los Angeles has fewer leaks per mile of pipe than many other big cities.

Some 7,200 miles of pipe -- moving about 600 million gallons of water each day -- run beneath the city’s streets. Much of the infrastructure dates from the 1920s and the years just after World War II, two periods when housing construction boomed.

Key to the upgrade are fixes to the 5-foot-wide trunk lines, which move water from aqueducts into the city and from reservoir to reservoir based on demand. Over the last five years, officials have replaced about nine miles of trunk line; 32 more miles are scheduled to be replaced in coming years. In 2008, the City Council authorized rate increases totaling about $2 a month per customer to pay for these and other repairs.

But critics, including Nick Patsaouras, former head of the Water and Power Commission, said the department had neglected infrastructure while wasting money on “pay raises . . . and lobbyists.”

“It’s the chickens coming home to roost,” he said of the damage from the Valley incidents.

Water and Power Commission President Lee Kanon Alpert called the agency’s response to the Studio City trunk-line blowout “remarkable in terms of stopping what occurred and fixing it in such a short time period. Obviously, if we knew this thing was going to blow, we would have repaired it beforehand. . . . I would like to see some thanks given to the great response of our employees instead of some of the complaining and nitpicking by people who either are unappreciative or have ulterior motives.”

The 6-inch service line that ruptured in Valley Village, on Bellingham Avenue at Hartsook Street, was installed in 1969 and should have held up several more decades, officials said. The line that burst Saturday in Studio City was slated to be replaced starting next month.

That was little comfort to residents of the two neighborhoods, where many spent Tuesday assessing damage and trying to clean up.

“The city should have been on top of it,” said Stacey Feldman, owner of two Ventura Boulevard boutiques.

Feldman walked through one of her stores, squeezing between racks of merchandise covered in plastic, fans blow-drying the wood floor and electrical cords snaking every which way. Outside, her neighborhood was full of blocked-off streets and water-damaged homes.

The small-business district along Ventura Boulevard teemed with professional cleanup crews and insurance adjusters.

Coldwater Canyon Avenue erupted about 10:40 p.m Saturday, sending water 10 to 15 feet into the air, ripping chunks of concrete from the ground and sweeping a bystander off his feet; he was uninjured.

By the time the water stopped, it was knee deep on some nearby streets and in some houses.

Officials said they did not know when they would be able to reopen Coldwater Canyon, a major thoroughfare connecting the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.

They also said they did not think the rupture and sinkhole in Valley Village were related to the burst trunk line beneath Studio City.

Firefighters responding to a 5:30 a.m. call about flooding Tuesday came upon water coursing down the street. The driver of the firetruck began backing up when the ground suddenly gave way and the front of the vehicle began to fall in.

Two firefighters in the cab climbed out the window to safety.

The truck was pulled out of the hole in the midafternoon.

A preliminary assessment of the city’s loss from both incidents is about $2 million, according to Councilman Paul Koretz.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa visited the sinkhole and vowed to investigate what had caused the incidents.

He also said he was grateful that the firefighters were able to get out of the firetruck safely. In 2005, a city engineer drowned in a sinkhole in Sun Valley moments after briefing a councilman about the damage.

“Anybody who has gone to visit the site can tell you that could have been an absolutely horrific disaster,” Villaraigosa said. “Thanks to God and their good work they were able to get out without any injury.”





Time staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.