By Sarah Haselton
Urban Creeks face a multitude of challenges that threaten the overall health and biodiversity of our watershed. The Watershed Project has continuously acted to protect our local creeks, monitor local water quality and manage stormwater. Runoff from our lawns, roofs and streets possess a threat to creeks and overall watershed health. A very important issue our creeks are faced with today is water main breaks. If you have ever seen a water main break, you can imagine that there are dramatic repercussions!
There are many environmental consequences to a water main break (broken pipe), including lethal effects on the fish and wildlife living in our local creeks and streams. A water main refers to the underground piping that delivers water to the customer’s service pipe, generally from a reservoir or pumping station. In most residential areas water is delivered to homes through a network of pipes that run under the streets. These pipes are under pressure and main water breaks can occur from external corrosion of the pipe or sudden temperature changes. Due to the pressure in the pipe the water will flow until the hole or crack is fixed, which can sometimes result in gallons upon gallons of water flowing into the streets and flooding nearby areas.
In accordance with the EPA’s water quality requirement, our drinking water is treated with disinfectants such as chloramines, which are fatal to fish. The chemical chloramine is composed of ammonia bonded to chlorine and used in part because of its ability to resist breaking down in the presence of water. Chlorine is a secondary disinfectant used by several public water systems in the U.S. to treat water, including the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which supplies drinking water to many East Bay communities. After a water main breaks, the treated water flows into storm drains and then directly into creeks, with no filtration.
The Bay Area has encountered many water main breaks and the issue is at the heart of many other local creek organizations. Just less than a month ago a member of Friends of Sausal Creek, Dr. Matt Cover, witnessed the aftermath of a water main break at Sausal Creek in Dimond Park. The drinking water flowed through the creek, clouding up the water and impacting the wildlife species. Matt observed two dead trout as well as a trout struggling to survive at the surface. This is common after water contaminated with chloramines infiltrates fish habitat. Chloramines in the treated water are deadly to fish– the chemical passes through their gills, and once absorbed into the bloodstream reacts with the hemoglobin. The chloramines alter the hemoglobin to methemoglobin, which makes it impossible to absorb oxygen effectively.
Before the fish dies, it will struggle to maintain oxygen levels and can be observed gasping at the water’s surface.
It’s not just water main breaks that bring our treated drinking water to the creeks. While old and leaky pipes are not as flashy as main breaks and often go unnoticed, they still impact the creeks, and often for long periods of time. Washing your car in the street also brings chloramines to the creek (along with whatever soap you’re using to clean your car), as does watering your lawn. However, you can combine these activities to reduce the amount of treated drinking water reaching the creek: wash your car on your lawn!
You can also report any water leak you may witness in the street by calling EBMUD’s leak hotline: 1-866-40-EBMUD. In responding to a leak, EDMUD uses straw wattles and treatment tablets that strip the chloramines from the water being released from the broken pipe before it reaches storm drains, creeks, streams or the Bay. However, these measures are not always enough to slow the large amounts of water before it reaches storm drains. The most effective method to avoid future leaks is to replace aging and outdated piping systems. While EDMUD has replaced some of its pipelines in order to improve water service and reduce water loss, much remains to do to upgrade all pipelines in its service area. In addition to reporting water main leaks, you can protect urban creeks and the San Francisco Bay by joining The Watershed Project on a shoreline or creek clean-up and by getting involved with monthly monitoring of creeks in Contra Costa County. Check out our website for upcoming stewardship events, and if you are interested in monthly creek monitoring email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!