Municipalities and 811

We’re almost into summertime in Texas, so it’s a good time to talk water.

When most people think of Texas, thanks in no small part to Western movies and TV, they think of a dry, arid desert. To be sure, that is a part of Texas. But no matter where you are in the state, a clean, safe supply of drinking water is virtually assured by local  municipalities. However, droughts and population growth are beginning to put a strain on water supplies.

If that’s not bad enough, the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card by the American Society of Civil Engineers says that there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting more than two trillion gallons of treated drinking water – that’s six billion gallons every day! An aging underground water delivery infrastructure (clay
pipes are still in use in some places) means that just normal wear and tear is going to result in breaks that cost time and money to repair.

It’s just adding insult to injury when water lines are broken during an excavation because the municipality was not a member of the 811 system and the excavator didn’t know they were down below.

Water is not endless. In San Antonio, for instance, the major source of water is the under-ground Edwards Aquifer. Water is pumped from this aquifer to service almost two million people in the area. In recent years, demand has begun to outstrip supply for this vital resource. Not a drop of water can be wasted. That’s one reason It’s more important than ever to put an end to needless, unnecessary breaks in municipal water lines.

In an effort to put the brakes on such damage, almost 450 water utilities are now members of Texas811. Having their lines included in the 811 notification system ensures they will be marked/flagged when locate requests come in for a planned
excavation. Unfortunately, the water utility exemption in Texas makes it easy for municipal suppliers to opt out of joining the 811 system, while utilities such as gas and electric are required to be members.

Locate requests come in for a dig and the  site is marked. The excavator begins work, and in moments hits a city water transmission line. Why? The line is not part of the 811 system so 811 has no access to that information and, as such, cannot let the excavator know a water line is below near the electric and gas lines that have been marked.

What happens when a city water line is hit?

• Citizens are left without water until repairs are made
• Medical facilities are left without water
• Businesses are forced to close
• People do not get paid because they are sent home from work due to closing
• Schools close temporarily
• There is no water to put out fires

And then there is the insurance liability. Hopefully, the excavator carries liability insurance to cover the accident. If not, it’s coming out of city budget pockets, which ultimately come out of your pockets whether you rent or own a residence.

That’s where being a member of 811 pays dividends. The author of a recent article in Water
Online, titled “Digging a Major Non-Revenue Water Risk,” states: “Some cities are trying
an innovative strategy for addressing water loss, imploring builders to figure out where water lines are located before digging begins. One approach is to participate in the Call 811 system, a service that helps spread information about the whereabouts of underground water lines.”

Some cities argue that the cost of being a member of 811 is not efficient or cost effective for citizens, and it’s true that there is a cost associated for utilities who are a member of 811.

Water utility members, like gas, electric, telecom and others, pay a fee of less than one dollar for each call the 811 center receives in reference to a planned dig that will be occurring in the vicinity of that utility’s underground lines. Additionally, there is the cost of sending someone out into the field to locate the underground water lines, which is also borne by the utility.

It’s a small part of the overall cost of maintaining a municipal water system. Money and time is already spent replacing aging pipes in your infrastructure or on emergency pipe
breaks due to age. Buying trouble by having lines struck because an excavator didn’t know
about them is not money well spent. Repairing a ruptured line which was cut or punctured
by an excavator is a headache you don’t need to deal with, any day of the week.

But, weigh the 811 cost against the following litany of accidents in Texas.
• Dallas, TX – Labor Day 2000: Contractors installing fiber optic cable in central  Dallas hit a water main. The resultant flood damaged two levels of cars in a nearby parking garage.The tab for damages was more than $4.5 million.
• Irving, TX – July 1999: A four-foot diameter water pipe was damaged by a fiber optic contractor boring under State Highway 114. (Note: Irving joined the 811 system in June of 2004.)
• Plano, TX – October 14, 2000: A fiber optic contractor hit a 33-inch pressurized sewer line. More than four million gallons of raw sewage leaked into a local waterway.
• Belton, TX – July 23, 2014: A contractor trenching near Sparta Road in Belton severed a 48-inch water transmission line in a Bell County Water Control and  improvement District. The break caused a loss of 29 million gallons of water. (Note: The City of Belton joined the 811 system in February of 2016.)

Some things are simply unavoidable. Water lines age out of service. Water lines break due to shifting ground. Water lines leak for any number of reasons. A water line going out of service due to a strike by an excavator unaware of its presence because it wasn’t in the 811 system… that’s avoidable!


Scott Finley is Manager, Media & Public Relations for Texas 811. He can be reached at ScottFinley@ Texas811.org.

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