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Deep Dive: Managing aging water pipes in Colorado Springs

Are recent water main breaks a sign of a citywide problem?
Deep dive: Managing aging water pipes in Colorado Springs
Posted at 6:43 AM, Aug 04, 2021

COLORADO SPRINGS — Multiple water main breaks just days apart from eachother. The largest one, shutting down a major stretch of Garden of the Gods Road for several days, but is this type of inconvenience avoidable in the first place and how well is our city's infrastructure holding up? News5 takes a deep dive for answers.

Along Garden of the Gods Road under the street there is a 24-inch water transmission line that was installed in the 1950s, the experts say the recent water main break in the area wasn't a pipe failure, it was a newly installed connection between the pipes that failed.

For many people the city's underground infrastructure is out of sight out of mind, but high water pressures caused by the hills in our area and varying soil types are capable of damaging the system.

"So we have an example here of external corrosion. This is essentially rust and what happens is as the wall ages the pipe gets eaten away by the rust and over time a hole will form and you'll have a leak," said Colorado Springs Utilities Project Engineer Tara McGowan. "This is an example of internal corrosion. This is where you'll have unlined pipe and you get corrosion on the inside of the pipe."

McGowan looks at a map of pipes under city streets and makes updates to it every day. This is part of her mission as she works to proactively manage 2,100 miles of the city's water distribution system.

"So we do our best to find the bad pipe and remove it and the pipe that's still in good shape we will protect it in place," said McGowan.

Utility crews don't need to rip up the street to do this. They lower a wireless camera down a 12 to 18 inch pre-cut hole in the road and take a visual assessment of the pipe. Then using another tool they take what's similar to an ultrasound to check the pipes thickness. If everything checks out, crews will add what's called cathodic protection, extending the life of that pipe.

"So this will lose metal instead of the pipe. So this is how we protect the pipe in the ground in place and we can install this through that hole and typically we install this for a 25 year life," said McGowan out at a work site.

The experts say frigid weather creates frost in the ground that can stress the city's pipes, but also during rainstorms soils soak up water and expand which can squeeze and break pipes even during the summer.

The City of Colorado Springs has 500 miles of pipe that's more than 50 years old, but as witnessed with the Garden of the Gods Road water main break, old piping isn't always the problem.

Andrew Cripe and his team use high tech tools and listening devices to try to detect leaky pipes.

"It's an acoustic microphone that we listen directly on the pipes. We can go through and actually listen directly on the ground," said Cripe who helps to lead the Colorado Springs Utilities leak detection effort.

Using water testing kits in the field, investigators tell News5 in many cases the issues they see deal with ground water, not a pipe leak.

Research shows Colorado Springs has a leak rate of 13 breaks per 100 miles per year and the experts say the goal is to stay under 15.
Utilities leaders say even though there have been a few large breaks this year, it's not a citywide infrastructure problem.

"We have a very good handle on our infrastructure as a whole, but with any large system we are going to have a break here or there that we just may not have expected," said Colorado Springs Utilities Chief Water Compliance and Innovation Officer Earl Wilkinson.

While the repair was made to fix the problem along Garden of the Gods Road. News5 is told crews will have to do more work along the corridor near Forge and Chestnut to inspect similar connections in the hopes of preventing any future problems.

If you'd like to dig even deeper into how Colorado Springs Utilities you can check out its 2021 Annual Operating and Financial Plan: