Monday, July 27, 2015

Our DC Region's Water Problems

The ability to expand and sustain any region in the United States is directly connected to the health and sustainability of the Region’s infrastructure and water resources. The most essential of the infrastructure are the portions that are almost invisible, but nonetheless essential to the American way of life- water, sewage and power. If we fail to strengthen and maintain these systems or allow unplanned and unsustainable growth, the systems will crumble, our utilities will become unreliable and we will become like India where sewage is untreated and water arrives for the lucky an hour a day.

The water infrastructure for the Washington Metropolitan Area which provides our homes, schools, businesses and public buildings with healthy, reliable water and sanitation and plays a key role in protecting public health and restoring and maintaining the quality of our rivers and streams. There are three main types of water infrastructure: drinking water, wastewater and stormwater. The systems are all connected by the rivers and streams and the water cycle itself. For example the Upper Occoquan waste water treatment plant officially known as the UOSA Water Reclamation Plant releases its treated water into Bull Run which joins with the Occoquan River to feed the Occoquan Reservoir and supply Fairfax Water. 
I will begin talking about the drinking water infrastructure and supply. Regionally, the drinking water infrastructure includes surface water intakes, wells, reservoirs, water treatment plants, water storage, pumps stations, 14,500 miles of water distribution lines, control valves, 114,000 fire hydrants, and water connectors and meters. This infrastructure is owned and operated by the region’s 28 water companies and serves more than 5.3 million people.

Three water utilities, the Washington Aqueduct, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) and Fairfax Water are the primary wholesale suppliers of the regions drinking water. For example: Arlington is supplied its water from the Washington Aqueduct, Prince William purchases water from Fairfax Water etc. In addition, there are small community supply wells and it is estimated that 250,000-500,000 people obtain their water from private wells in our region. 

Regionally we recycle sewage to drinking water

The region’s three big water utilities use surface water as their primary source of drinking water supply (88%-90%). The Potomac River provides about 4 million people with water. The Occoquan Reservoir in Virginia and the Patuxent River in Maryland provide another million people with water. Water supply is not unlimited, but is adequate to meet the peak demands of the region for the short term and possibly longer if we incorporate sustainability into all aspects of our lives. There are real limits to the water that can be taken from our rivers reliably and responsibly and we need to plan within those limits. However, the water delivery system is beginning to experience more frequent failures. 
from WSSC 2015

Water is paid for by charging by the gallon. To keep water prices low even as water usage in the region peaked 30 years ago, distribution companies have often cut their investments in maintaining their distribution systems. They have priced their water to pay only for the water treatment (pay the wholesalers) and emergency repairs. The water companies chose to repair piping after it failed instead of maintaining a planned repair schedule. Those failures predominantly happen in the winter. The fluctuation in temperature is tough on water mains, especially the older ones.

DC Water is a relatively small distribution system but averages about 500 water main breaks a year and has some of the oldest pipes in the region. Yet, their capital program was for many years designed to replace the distribution over a 300 year cycle. Pipes and valves are designed to last about 80 years. Pretty much DC water was planning for the failure of the system. In the past decade the replacement cycle has been shortened to 100 years, but that is too slow a pace for the aging system and unless additional investments are made, the District will experience an increasing rate of water disruptions. 
from WSSC

WSSC reportedly has on average 600 water main breaks in January each year (the worst month) and about 50 in June. About a quarter of WSSC’s 5,600 miles of water mains in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are over 50 years old. The WSSC is currently replacing 55 miles of water pipe each year. Fairfax Water maintains a replacement schedule to replace the entire system over 76 years.
The regions drinking water infrastructure is made up of billions of dollars of capital assets a significant portion that are buried in the ground. It takes a large annual investments to operated and preserve the water treatment and distribution system. The region’s drinking water utilities are currently making approximately $1.5 billion in capital investments each year and have operation and maintenance budgets of approximately $1.3 billion per year. This $2.8 billion spent annually is not enough to maintain 24/7 water to our homes and businesses.

Though the regions water utilities have made substantial investment to upgrade the central plants to meet regulatory standards and improve water quality, they have ignored non-regulatory driven system maintenance and improvements. A scheduled and planned replacement program would allow the coordination among infrastructure sectors when pipes are being replaced, sewage pipes could be replaced, electrical cables re-laid, roads repaired. Our water distribution system is at risk of increasing rates of failure as the water utilities face the need to replace the aging pipes and valves to maintain service.

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