Thursday, November 27, 2014

Time to Pay the “Piper”

WSSC workers closing valve at a water main break 
Last week the Washington Post reported that the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which supplies drinking water to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties (as well as waste water treatment), found that 60% of 350 large valves in their water distribution system that have been inspected this year in the recently revived preventative maintenance program did not work. Years of rust buildup and lack of operation or as it’s called by engineers, exercise caused the valves to freeze and fail to operate. If you do not occasionally exercise a valve it will freeze and fail when it is needed. The WSSC system has almost 64,500 vales in almost 5,600 miles of water pipes. The valves are needed to shut off water to a section of piping and divert water flow for repairs or when a pipe fails.

According to their most recent infrastructure plan WSSC is trying to replace 55 miles of water pipe each year and exercise (turn) 430 valves a year. Though that sounds impressive it is inadequate especially after years of neglect and with more than 350 miles of concrete pipe mains serving as the trunk lines in the system. These concrete water mains were designed to carry high volumes of pressurized water came into use in the United States and other nations in the late 1950’s and continued in use for water systems into the mid 1970’s when they were found to suffer from early failures. In addition, WSSC bought their pipes from the lowest bidder who seems to have had more problems with their piping.

If you will recall, one of these massive water mains in the WSSC system exploded back in March 2013 in Chevy Chase without warning despite sensors being present in that section of piping. According to the Washington Post the March 18, 2013 pipe explosion created a 50-by-70-foot crater in Chevy Chase Lake Drive and adjacent stream bank, and the lack of warning was because the failure occurred in a joint. In 2010 a water main needed to be replaced over the fourth of July weekend forcing water restrictions on Montgomery and Prince George counties as the replacement did not go smoothly due to valve failures. In addition, 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.

This type of steel reinforced concrete pipe used for the WSSC trunk lines has begun to fail catastrophically decades before their promised 100-year life expectancy. The life expectancy for steel pipe by comparison is 80 years. Unfortunately, WSSC has 350 miles of this type of pipe. In addition, WSSC ‘s supplier, Interpace, may have produced inferior pipe- the company was successfully sued by WSSC and others and is now out of business. Nine of the WSSC’s concrete mains have blown apart since 1996. After the 2008 blowout and to prevent future catastrophy, WSSC engaged in a a well publicized program to install a sensor system along all the concrete mains that cost more than $21 million to alert WSSC of an impending failure. It costs $1.4 million to replace each mile of water main. Fairfax water was able to replace all their concrete water mains, but with 350 miles of concrete water main the cost to replace all the concrete mains for WSSC was prohibitive.

Fall is the time when the budget cycle for fiscal year 2016 begins and WSSC spells out its needs and the Montgomery and Prince George’s county executives and councils review that material and set rate increases, if any, for the next year. Rates for WSSC water have increased between 7% and 9% percent a year since 2008. However, before 2008, rate increases approved by the counties were below the inflation rate for three years, and for six years beginning in 2000 there were no rate increases at all. During this period approximately one-third of the workforce was cut and several routine and essential maintenance programs were dropped including the valve exercise program. Trying to control the cost of water by freezing rates resulted in the deterioration in the water distribution system. It’s falling apart and WSSC is forced to try to catch up and repair the damage from neglecting maintenance.

Like many public water supply companies, the WSSC's attention has not been on maintaining the water delivery system and water purification standards; instead they have been mired for decades by politics. The commissioners have one job, to oversee the operation and maintenance of the water supply system for 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 six commissioners three from Montgomery County and three from Prince George County fail in their primary job- ensuring the uninterrupted supply of safe and sanitary water to the residents of their counties. Instead they worry about fairness for rate increases as pipes burst and valves fail. There is no room for politics in equipment maintenance. It is not “fair” that WSSC has hundreds of miles of poor quality water mains, it is simply true. The typical life of a steel pipe is 80 years and WSSC needs to pick up the pace of their pipe replacement program to match the life of the pipe.

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