Monday, July 5, 2010

Failures in Our Water Infrastructure-Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission Water Main Failures

Its Fourth of July weekend and Montgomery and Prince George counties are under mandatory water restriction, which to a large part have been ignored by large portions of the local population. Apparently, everyone is special and should not have the water restrictions apply to them. However, the bottom line is that in order for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, WSSC, to ensure enough water pressure to fight fires and prevent an overall drop in pressure, the population needs to cut back on their water use by about a third and hope that there are no big fires over the holiday weekend. The WSSC reports that mandatory conservation has so far resulted in less than a 10% reduction in water use. If conservation measures do not work, supply will simply be inadequate. If there is a fire there could be inadequate pressure at the hydrant to put it out. If the pressure in the system drops enough then it could impact supply to some homes. Their taps could simply go dry until the repair is completed and the 8 foot diameter water main refilled and might allow contaminants to seep into the entire system.

This is not the first time a massive main has caused major problems for the WSSC. In late 2008, a concrete main 66 inches in diameter burst in Bethesda, causing a torrent of frigid water that stranded cars and drivers. Other large water-main breaks in the past several years have led to advisories to boil-water for homes, businesses and hospitals as well as the temporary closure of schools and day-care centers. If water supply drops enough from a water main break or a water main’s removal from service, the water pressure in the system drops and two things happen, bacteria and other contaminants can seep into the water supply and there would be a drop in pressure at the tap, in many cases no water at all.

The water main that is the source of this weekend’s problem was installed in 1969. In 2007 when it was last inspected the, crews left behind fiber-optic equipment to detect the "ping" sounds created when the reinforcing steel wires break. This past week, the acoustic fiber optic system heard several pings of wire breaking- an indication that a section of the pipe was crumbling. The water main would need to be replaced before it failed as happened last winter. This is just the latest indication that our water infrastructure is aging. It has not been properly maintained.

Like many public water supply companies, the WSSC's attention has not been on maintaining the water deliver system and water purification standards; instead they have been mired for decades by politics. The commissioners have one job, to oversee the maintenance of supply of water to the residents and businesses in the area. The WSSC has a dedicated revenue source with a captive market so they can raise funds to maintain the system in an orderly and organized fashion, but they don’t. The three from Montgomery commissioner and the three from Prince George fail in their primary job. Instead they became deadlocked along county lines over a new general manager, and a Prince George's commissioner accused two Montgomery commissioners of racial bias. The board continued to debate racial issues after last winter’s water main break for two months before addressing the crisis of the water supply. They worry about fairness for rate increases when water rater need to support the maintenance and operation of the water system.

The replacement of the damaged section of the water main has been delayed because the adjacent valves have failed to completely shut and water continued to pour into the damaged section of pipe early Saturday. Repairs are further complicated by the water currently in the system. The WSSC had to discharge the water in the system somewhere. The water has been disinfected and contains chlorine so it could not be released into the sanitary sewer and the load on the waste treatment plants would exceed capacity. After replacing the pipe section the main will need to be refilled.

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