The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) provides water and sewer service to nearly 1,000 square miles in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland. Established in 1918, WSSC is one of the largest water and wastewater utilities in the nation, with a network of nearly 5,600 miles of fresh water pipeline and over 5,400 miles of sewer pipeline. WSSC supplies water and sewer service to 1.8 million residents in approximately 460,000 households and businesses.
In addition to the water and sewer pipeline systems, WSSC operates 3 reservoirs, the Triadelphia, Rocky Gorge, and Little Seneca, that have a total holding capacity of 14 billion gallons. A regional reservoir, the Jennings Randolph Reservoir, holds an additional 13 billion gallons of water is shared with the other two regional water utilities, Fairfax Water and the Washington Aqueduct.
WSSC also operates 2 water filtration and treatment plants – The Patuxent (max 56 million gallons per day and the Potomac (max 285 million gallons a day) plants that together produce an average of 167 million gallons per day of safe drinking water. Despite the recent brown or rust colored water problems reported over the past 6 months in Montgomery County, the water reportedly remains safe if unappealing. The brown water problem is become symbolic of the problems with WSSC. About 15 years ago WSSC ceased flushing the water distribution system with chlorine each spring.
Though WSSC operates 6 wastewater treatment plants – Western Branch, Piscataway, Parkway, Seneca, Damascus, and Hyattstown with a total capacity to handle 71.08 million gallons of wastewater per day, most of their waste water is treated at Blue Plains. The Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, operated by DC Water, handles as much as an additional 169 million gallons a day of waste water under a cost sharing agreement with the WSSC, treating on average approximately 65% of WSSC’s wastewater annually.
When WSSC was founded Prince George’s and Montgomery counties were mostly rural. The utility was overseen by the two County Councils. During the 1960s and continuing through the late 1980s, WSSC experienced growth rates that were unprecedented. For most of that time WSSC charged only nominal fees for new customers to join the system instead of the actual cost to run the piping, instead WSSC used debt to finance the expansion of the system. In the mistaken belief that growth and increasing revenues would solve the debt problem. However, by the end of the last century, debt service (principal and interest) on bonds used to finance the system expansion accounted for one-half of WSSC’s total revenues and revenues were falling.
While WSSC was incurring a pile of debt to expand the system, the differences between the commissioners appointed by Prince George’s and Montgomery counties resulted in deadlocked decision-making, preventing the needed investment in repairing, replacing and rehabilitating the oldest parts of WSSC’s water and sewer systems, which were approaching the end of their useful life. WSSC had also lost a class action suit when they tried to impose increased hookup charges and capital charges as a System Expansion Offset Charge. In its 1984 decision, the court found that WSSC did not have the authority to adopt the charge and that the System Expansion Offset Charge as adopted was unreasonable.
Though the General Assembly finally gave WSSC the explicit authority to impose a system expansion charge, but by that time WSSC had already inherited a legacy of debt-financed expansion costs and an operating culture that did not have preventive maintenance and viewed inappropriate cutting of system maintenance and upgrade as cost savings, rather than what they were. No investment in the infrastructure took place unless it broke or was a mandated upgrade by the regulators. The majority of the investment in the systems was spent at the central waste water treatment plants and water treatment plants.
About 15 years ago WSSC went so far as to cut the annual flushing of the water distribution system. Flushing of the water distribution system removes sediments comprised mostly of minerals (including iron and manganese) which have accumulated over time in the pipes. An annual flushing program helps to keep fresh and clear water throughout the distribution system. Removing the residue ensures that when the water arrives in your home, it is the same high quality as when it left the water treatment plant. While these programs continued with Fairfax Water and DC Water, WSSC stopped. The recent increasing occurrence of brown or rust colored water in Montgomery county is probably the result.
WSSC representatives initially claimed the brown water was caused by an increase in the sodium from the winter’s road salt triggered increased leaching of manganese from the soil, into groundwater and then into the Potomac River. Iron and manganese can cause discolored water, but would have been seen in the water exiting the water treatment plant, though reportedly elevated sodium and manganese levels were seen in the finished water, it was within drinking water standards and clear. In addition, neither Fairfax Water nor DC Water customers have been experiencing increased incidences of brown water. If the water was clear leaving the water treatment plant the problem was in the distribution system. Now, WSSC has revised their theory and believes that the salty snowmelt and elevated sodium levels loosened the buildup of rust and manganese in their distribution system. The root cause, the failure to flush the distribution system for years, has caught up with them. Despite the appearance, WSSC reports that the water remains safe if unappealing. This is just one symptom of the problems at WSSC.
WSSC officials say the amount of water pumped, sold and paid for, dropped from a daily average of 130 million gallons in 2004 to 95 million gallons in 2013 due to federally mandated water conservation like low flow toilets and water saving appliances and water awareness brought on by drought. Water consumption which has been the basis of revenue is falling as costs are mounting to upgrade sewer systems and repair and replace aging water pipes and sewer pipes, some more than a century old, that are bursting after decades of decay and neglect. Meanwhile, WSSC’s costs for electricity, chemicals and labor have continued to rise with inflation.
A crisis is brewing because the sustainability of WSSC is eroding. Much of the WSSC’s service areas was built out in the building boom of 1960s and continuing through the late 1980s. The pipes installed in 1960 are 55 years old, in the next decades WSSC will have to replace a significant portion of their piping systems. Over the next 10 years WSSC will have to replace over 2,000 miles of water pipe and similar amount or sewer pipes at an average cost of $1.4 per mile of pipe (2009 WSSC figure) that is almost $6 billion to replace the piping that has exceeded it design life. However, WSSC estimates that they will have to spend about $2.6 billion dollars in the next five years on capital improvement projects and has been studying how to pay for those needs. Issuing more debt and extending the maturities of the existing and future debt to 30 years will simply push their problems down the road a few more years and not develop a plan to renew the water and sewage systems for this century. This is in addition to operating costs, upgrades necessary to water treatment and Blue Plains.
Customers of WSSC might want to consider their own water treatment systems. Chlorination, the oldest method of disinfection can also be used to solve the most vexing problems with minerals. Chlorine will oxidize iron and manganese so they can be filtered out and also oxidize hydrogen sulfide to reduce or eliminate the rotten egg order that can render water here undrinkable. Chlorination followed by a media filter or a rechargeable carbon filter to capture particles and precipitate and the free chlorine can produce pleasant, sanitary water.