When crude oil began hemorrhaging to the surface of Ventura Boulevard in September, it was the first time that most Encino residents knew they were living above an oil pipeline.
In fact, it had been there for 50 years, intertwining with a maze of other pipes and conduits, one part of an increasingly congested subterranean traffic jam.
Statistics for the underground can be mind-numbing: 15,000 miles of natural gas lines, 8 million miles of telephone wires, 3,000 miles of sewers, hundreds of miles of storm drains and more than 50,000 manholes. But there is much more, including nine oil company pipelines, water lines large enough to accommodate a car and a cavernous natural gas storage facility that holds tens of billions of cubic feet of fuel.
It took one visit and five subsequent telephone calls before someone from the Department of Public Works could answer the question: "Who do I speak with to learn what is under the San Fernando Valley?" And in the case of an emergency response to a man-made or natural disaster, representatives from the state fire marshal's office, which keeps tabs on underground hazardous materials, said that until a new state law went into effect Jan. 1, not every pipeline had to be reported to their office, making it difficult to know exactly where everything really is.
The largest part of this invisible empire belongs to the Metropolitan Water District and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Both companies have control facilities in Granada Hills and, like the tentacles of an octopus, major water lines radiate from there in all directions.
"We have 75% of L.A.'s water supply coming through the Valley, with the primary purpose of the major transmission lines being not only to get the water there, but into the rest of Los Angeles as well," said DWP engineer Jerry Gewe.
The largest is the Metropolitan Water District's Sepulveda Feeder, a 12 1/2-foot-diameter pipe that roughly parallels the San Diego Freeway before tunneling through the Sepulveda Pass on its way south. According to Assistant Area Supt. Frank Bellisle, if a major catastrophe ruptured the line, hundreds of acre-feet of water would be released before it could be shut down. (One acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.) "If a contractor punched a hole, even a relatively small one, you'd probably see water shooting 300-and-something feet in the air."
Three other water transmission lines weave under the Simi Valley Freeway west from Granada Hills, and a single line heads east. Other major lines go under Roscoe Boulevard, Topanga Canyon Boulevard, San Fernando Road and Coldwater Canyon Avenue.
Everybody from AT&T to Western Union has something under the Valley, with Pacific Telephone taking top communication honors. If the wire underneath the Valley were stretched out, Pacific Telephone engineers estimated that it would wrap the Equator more than 334 times.
AT&T, on the other hand, controls most of the long-distance trunk lines, the oldest being the 4-inch-thick Los Angeles-to-Santa Barbara cable that burrows under Cahuenga Pass and follows the Ventura Freeway out of town.
Other lines include cables from Sherman Oaks north up the San Diego Freeway; a pair that work their way down San Fernando Road from Newhall, one going to Los Angeles, the other to San Bernardino, and a new fiber-optic line from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara that, when finished, will follow the Southern Pacific railroad tracks west before heading to Simi Valley.
All sewers in the Valley can be traced to the original North Outfall Sewer line constructed parallel to the Los Angeles River in 1929. Today, there are 3,000 miles of lines from homes and businesses that dump into 300 miles of larger sewage transmission pipes. Two other working lines are older, the DWP's 1913 Owens Valley Aqueduct and an Arco oil pipeline dating from 1925.
Major sewer pipes average 3 1/2 feet in diameter, but are up to 8 feet wide in the vicinity of the Donald C. Tillman water purification plant in Van Nuys, which is capable of recycling 40 million gallons of water daily.
If something is lost in the sewer system, it will reappear at such places as Tillman. In addition to a never-ending stream of softballs, workers have found everything from jewelry and money to a complete motorcycle. The sewer system is also the Valley's manhole champion, with about 45,000. Pacific Telephone comes in a distant second with 6,000.
"Storm drains usually follow the street pattern," said George Groves of the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering. "Where the street goes, so go the drains."
Besides sewers, most major north-south streets have some form of storm drain system about 10 feet below, with major arteries ranging anywhere from 5- to 9-foot-wide pipes.
The largest of the storm drains, measuring 17 feet wide by 10 feet high, runs along Topanga Canyon Boulevard from underneath Topanga Plaza south to Calabasas Street and Mulholland Drive.