2 Investigates: SF fire hydrant leaks left unrepaired for weeks or months

 Some San Francisco fire hydrants were not repaired for weeks or months while others fell through the cracks completely, according to documents from the city's Public Utilities Commission inspected by 2 Investigates.

There are only five designated PUC workers to service the 12,500 fire hydrants across the city. Though the PUC says it can pull additional plumbers from other areas if needed.

The PUC says while it aims to fix the leaking hydrants within a couple of days sometimes more parts or additional work is needed. Leaking hydrants can still be used to fight a fire, so they do not pose a safety hazard. But some business owners say the delayed repairs are unfair during a time they're being asked to conserve water. 

Missing paperwork

Most of the city's leaking hydrants are reported to the PUC by individuals who call 311. Previously, the San Francisco Fire Department maintained the hydrants, but the PUC took over the job in 2010. The agency maintains a system whereby the leaks reported are entered into a database along with the date they are reported and the corresponding address of the leak. Once repaired, the work order is closed out.

When 2 Investigates requested documents from the PUC for out of service hydrants over the last year, the PUC provided a document that included hydrant leaks. Per the PUC's own records, it appeared close to sixty leaking hydrants had never been repaired while others took hundreds of days to fix. When KTVU asked the PUC why, Assistant General Manager Steve Ritchie said the PUC's record keeping was inaccurate because it did not include the correct dates for when the repairs were completed.

"What we've got in here is the fact of handling work orders which is the paperwork. Everyone always takes care of the paperwork last," said Ritchie.

Ritchie said the PUC's track record of repairs was actually much better than what the records initially showed. 

"In terms of being on top of the system, I have full confidence in our crews and our professionals that take care of this," said Ritchie.

Hydrants still dripping

The PUC provided KTVU with a new document that included corrected repair dates, but when KTVU joined the PUC on a ride along, 2 Investigates discovered several hydrants still leaking, including some that were reportedly fixed.

KTVU's first stop with the PUC was for a repair at Somerset and Bacon. The hydrant at was still leaking six months after its initial report date in PUC records. The agency said it was "possibly missed."

The same records indicated that a hydrant at 7th and Market Streets was fixed one day after it was reported, but while along with PUC workers, KTVU cameras still detected a small drip. There was a much bigger drip at Division and Brannan where a hydrant was marked as fixed two days after it was reported, but two months later, KTVU discovered it still was leaking in two places. 

"Either it was mis-entered or the leak repair didn't take effect or again a new leak has occurred," said Ritchie. 

Ritchie told KTVU it's not uncommon for a repair not to take effect or for a new leak to occur on a hydrant that has already been repaired. He said it is part of working with a system with lots of parts that are constantly in need of maintenance. Despite having only five employees to service thousands of hydrants, the PUC says that's not the main reason some repairs take months while others are missed.

"I wouldn't attribute that to being too few employees because we actually do a good job of prioritizing," said Ritchie.

Ritchie says sometimes more parts are needed. Or in the case of the hydrant at Division and Brannan, he explained, the area will require additional street work. 

PUC calls water loss "insignificant"

The delays are a source of frustration for some San Francisco business owners who have been asked to cut back on water usage. At Martha and Brothers coffee shop in San Francisco, there's no coffee without water. This year more than ever owner Jaime Guerrero worked to save as much water as he could.

"Putting traps in the faucets; not washing our sidewalk," said Guerrero.

But while he was conserving water daily, the PUC took nearly two months to repair a leaking hydrant outside his business.

"They don't come and take care of it but they're urging us and our water rates have gone way up. To see water being wasted while we're paying high bills, yeah, that would get under my nerves," said Guerrero. 

But the PUC says the water loss from dripping hydrants is a drop in the bucket compared to the total water supplied to the entire city. 

"I would say in terms of volume it is insignificant," said Ritchie. 

So, KTVU measured both leaks from the leaking hydrant at Division and Brannan over 30 minutes. The leaks totaled one and a half cups of water. Over the two months the hydrant has been leaking, that's approximately 252 gallons of water lost.

That amount of water is an insignificant percentage of the water delivered to San Francisco, according to Ritchie, but it's much more significant to business owners and residents asked to conserve.

For Guerrero, 252 gallons of water is equivalent to more than 4,000 cups of coffee. "Infuriates you," said Guerrero. 

As for the hydrant outside his coffee shop, the PUC says it's not sure why it took 49 days to fix.

"For his case I'd actually apologize to him say that I'd like us to do better," said Ritchie. 

Ritchie says despite the leaking hydrants, the PUC has cut back on its water usage in other ways by 25 percent.

If you see a hydrant leaking in your neighborhood, you can report it to the PUC by calling 311.

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