Super Bowl Legend: 1984 Main Break
February 10, 1999
By LeRoy W. Hooton, Jr.
Several days before this years Super Bowl, I received a call from the Los Angeles Times about a watermain break during the 1984 Super Bowl. The reporter asked me if I thought that the main break was a result of the "Super Bowl flush." I confirmed that we did have a break during the game, but I couldn't confirm that it was attributed to a big flush. All water systems experience main breaks, so to attribute this particular break to the annual football spectacular is difficult to tell. The water system is aging and we have around 300 breaks a year.
I did tell the reporter that the water system does respond to highly viewed television broadcasts. This seemed to spur the curiosity of the reporter. The interview continued. I told him that instrumentation measuring pressures within the water distribution system could detect water usage during a television broadcast. I told the reporter that using the water system as a means of measuring viewing audience was real. Salt Lake City's record-breaking, television viewing audience-induced pressure dip was caused by the final showing of M*A*S*H.
On Super Bowl Sunday January 31, 1999 I opened up the Salt Lake Tribune and the front-page article was by Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times, entitled, "America Flush with Bowl Legends as Big Game Approaches." The article began, "It happens every year: Super Bowl Sunday approacheth and super-size things are said about the whopping impact on America wrought by the football spectacular. The water systems of major cities are in peril of collapsing due to a thunderous amount of simultaneous toilet flushing at halftime. It happened in Salt Lake City, you know." Mr. Perry went on to describe examples of Super Bowl tales from guacamole production to Disneyland to the stock market, et al. He wrote, "Beyond many a good legend there is a kernel of fact, or a dash of hopeful thinking, and so it is with Super Bowl legends."
Our main break must somehow have been placed on a list of Super Bowl happenings, among all of the others, to support the legend. I hadn't realized that the incident got past the City limits; but apparently it received national attention. At least Tony Perry found it somewhere. The reporter continued, "It is true that a water main broke in Salt Lake City in 1984 on Super Bowl Sunday. News stories on the Super Bowl toilet factor routinely list that incident as proof positive of the phenomenon." He continues, "Alas, LeRoy Hooton, director of public utilities for Salt Lake City says no link between the Super Bowl flushing and the 16-inch main break was ever established. Water-line breaks, he notes, are not uncommon in Salt Lake City, where much of the infrastructure is in its dotage. Still local television stations broadcast a "teaser" for its 11 p.m. news about the water break and the tale has been part of the journalistic fabric of Super Bowl lore ever since."
The news article tickled my curiosity. We have one small pressure zone (Brinton Springs Tanner Low Zone) that is particularly sensitive to water flow and corresponding pressure dips. The last M*A*S*H episode of February 28, 1983 registered a total drop of 33 psi from 113 psi to 80 psi at the conclusion of the 2-1/2 hour special. The 5 commercial breaks caused pressure drops between 6 and 12 psi. To my knowledge 33 psi is the largest pressure drop resulting from a television show. The M*A*S*H story was covered by the local news, and was talked about for several years. The standing joke at the time was that instead of the Nielson Ratings, the water system pressure is a better way to measure viewer ratings. It was noted in a 1986 newspaper article that this same gauging station registered a maximum 15 psi drop during that year's Super Bowl; not even close to the M*A*S*H reading. So, up to that year, the "Super Bowl flush" was still part of the legend.