The English get as much rain as we in California get sunshine. So, it was with some surprise that on a recent trip to the land of my birth, English authorities were issuing "hose pipe bans," urging residents not to water their lawns, wash their cars, or take long showers.

There, water is not the problem. The problem is pipes. In parts of England, as much as 60 percent of treated water escapes from bad pipes before it reaches homes. My brother said I should be thankful that we did not have that problem in California. Or so he thought. Stateside, I was not off the plane for two hours before hearing a plea for water conservation. They said the California snow pack is at a 20-year low.

Mick Pattinson Here is what water authorities don't tell us: California water mains are in such bad shape that, in parts of the state, as much as 30 percent of clean, treated water leaks from pipes before it reaches faucets. But rather than to repair holes that spew more than 50 billion gallons a year from California pipes alone, we force more water down there, and hope that reckoning day comes on someone else's watch.

Who Pays?

And it's often costing us in unexpected ways: If we are pumping 45 percent more water than we should, that means home builders pay 45 percent more in developer fees for water hook-ups than we should. Water availability is now a standard for new-home development. The same people who don't take care of their water mains now tell us we need to guarantee more sources of water before they allow us to build new homes.

It's the same with sewer pipes–a sewer pipes filled with holes often lets in more water than it lets out sewage. Fixing the holes can reduce 60 percent of the flow into a sewage treatment plant. So here's the choice: Hit developers up for the money for bigger sewage treatment plants that are unnecessary or fix the pipes.

U.N. scientists say global warming will damage our water supply in 20 years. But, bad pipes put our water supply in jeopardy right now. In Auburn, N.Y., city officials cite losing 50 percent of what industry insiders call unaccounted-for water or non-revenue water. In Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other large Eastern cities, the number is between 30 and 40 percent. In Kansas, 61 water districts lose 30 percent or more of their water.

American pipes alone leak enough water to supply all of California all the time.

By comparison, we are water spendthrifts in California, with most places losing somewhere around 20 percent, plus or minus a few points. That is still twice as high as water experts recommend as the maximum level of leakage. What's more, information about non-revenue water or unaccounted-for water is difficult to find.

It used to be the only way to repair a pipe was to "patch and pray" or dig it up and replace it with a new pipe. The first fix was a short-term solution and the second was expensive and disruptive.

Now there's another choice: In Monroe, Mich., last month, city officials were among the first to use technology that allows water pipes to be repaired from the inside without digging. Trenchless technology has been used on sewer and oil pipes for decades, but until now, has not been available for water pipes. Now that's changed, reducing both the expense and disruption of fixing and maintaining water pipes.

Photo: Fotolia That makes it a new day for water pipes. Before officials start asking us to tolerate dirty cars, brown lawns, and empty pools, perhaps they can do something for themselves that would be even more effective: Call a plumber. BB

–Mick Pattinson, president and CEO of Carlsbad, Calif.?based Barratt American, is also president and CEO of McCanna Water Co., a small utility that serves one of Barrett's master planned communities.