It took four hours for City of San Diego Public Utilities Department workers to respond to a water-line break at a La Jolla business in September 2014. During that four-hour window, amid numerous calls and reports that the shut-off valve at the main was stuck, 10,326 cubic square feet of water was lost.
The owner of the business, Uriel Grezemkovsky, has since sued the City of San Diego for $48,941, the cost of the subsequent water bill.
Long response times from the city's water team is not a new issue. In May of last year, the San Diego County Grand Jury investigated the practices of San Diego's public utilities department and found the it relied on outdated maps, and emergency response teams were not issued computers to aid in finding shut-off valves. Staffing shortfalls and unqualified employees are among other reasons that the city often misses its goal of shutting down water-line breaks within 30 minutes of receiving the call.
According to the May 2014 grand jury report:
[The San Diego Public Utilities Department] maintains a goal of shutting down main breaks within 30 minutes of receiving a break report. After each incident the first responder fills out a Water Shutdown Report and the repair crew files a “Water Break/Leak/Discharge Report.” Examination of these forms for 2013 and 2014 indicates that both of these forms, while signed by both the individual responder and his/her supervisor, are frequently filled out incompletely and often contain contradictory information. For example, the Grand Jury found some reports indicating that water had been shut off before a break had been reported. [The utilities department] does not track actual response times, nor do they appear to maintain sufficient documentation to allow them to accurately measure their performance. Setting announced goals seems like good public relations but without measuring performance against those goals is of little actual value.
From 2004 to 2012, according to a report by online news organization iNewsource, the City of San Diego paid over $10 million to settle claims filed by property owners and general contractors for damages incurred as a result of water-main breaks — as reported by the grand jury, the money to pay for damages comes from ratepayers and not the city's general fund.
According to the lawsuit, despite repeated calls from Grezemkovsky, members of the San Diego Fire Department arrived before the emergency response teams and were able to break free the main shut off valve, stopping the water.
"It is the city's fault that the water main leaked for a minimum of [three-and-one-half] hours before the [San Diego Fire Department] finally responded,” says the lawsuit. “The city did not respond until nearly 4 hours after receiving actual notice of the break."
The city is currently replacing aging asbestos cement and cast-iron pipes, but water-quality advocacy groups are urging the city to act faster by addressing staffing levels.
"Coastkeeper has long advocated for not only adequate staff for emergency response, but we also advocate for investment in continuous infrastructure repair and improvement to minimize those emergencies," says a spokesperson for San Diego Coastkeeper. "If water waste or neglect on either an individual scale or systemic infrastructure scale exists, then it is critical that adequate staff and resources are allocated to addressing these issues."
San Diego Coastkeeper is asking local municipalities to find the money needed to increase staff — whether to respond to emergencies or to limit over-watering by residents.
"This is a measure that will support conservation efforts and will also help address pollution issues that arise when the wasted water flows into our rivers and ocean via stormdrains, picking up pollutants along the way. While we understand the city is in the process of streamlining its enforcement practice and coordinating between departments, we have yet to see the plans or a tangible commitment to adequate staff to deal with the waste that is occurring throughout the city."