Thursday, June 29, 2017

Privatize the Washington Aqueduct

As reported earlier this month by the Washington Post buried in in the more than 1,200 pages of the President’s budget proposal are a few lines stating that the Administration wants to privatize the Washington Aqueduct, selling the assets for $119 million. The current Administration has stated they have plans to privatize public assets, such as the aqueduct, roads and bridges, intending to use the proceeds from the sales of the assets to fund new infrastructure projects.

Already some officials in the District instead want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the aqueduct, to turn the facility over to D.C. Water, a public utility, but D.C. Water wants to pay the federal government far less than the $119 million the administration wants from the sale. In addition, Washington DC has not demonstrated an ability to properly run a utility. The Washington D.C. government answers to current political forces not the long term good of the region. It is essential that whoever ends up the owner of the Washington Aqueduct is rigorous in maintaining water quality and the ability to quickly respond to the variable water quality of the Potomac River and is prepared and capable of proactively addressing spills into the Potomac River and emerging contaminants in the water. Flint, Michigan demonstrated that operating a water treatment plant on a river is far more complicated and less forgiving than operating a water distribution system.

By 1996 when the Washington DC government initiated the creation of what would be rechristened DC Water in 2010, some portions of the water delivery system were already 100 years old. The water and rates in place in the Washington DC set by politicians covered the costs to deliver the water and treat and replace 0.33% of the system each year. This was an unrealistic and irresponsible repair and replacement rate. The city was sacrificing the future for the benefit of the current water rate payers. In the spring of 2012 DC Water announced that they have tripled the replacement rate to 1% (with of course the increase in water rates) so that in 100 years the system will be replaced.

In truth, according to an interview the General Manager, George Hawkins, gave on National Public Radio a few years ago, DC Water has gotten so far behind in water pipe repair and replacement that they cannot to catch up at that replacement rate- it will take more than decades and an increased repair and replacement rate to catch up. It is likely, given the age of the water system in Washington DC the increase in replacement rate was probably necessary to address just what was failing each year. One hundred years is longer than the predicated life of a water distribution system, piping systems are rated at 80 years and the average water main in Washington DC was 78 years old at the time. The water pipes in DC are old. They leak. DC Water is trying to use a predictive modeling to determine which pipes need to replace first to keep the good quality water they are buying from the Washington Aqueduct flowing to the homes and businesses in the District. Now they want the government to give them the Aqueduct. It is essential that the drinking water quality be maintained.

The Washington Aqueduct dates back to 1853 when congress appropriated $5,000 to develop the first portion of the system that consisted of the Dalecarlia Reservoir and Georgetown distribution reservoir. That portion of the system was designed to run on gravity, so that the system did not require pumps until much later when the system and the city expanded and demand for water required the expansion of the system. Even today the energy used by the system is reduced because they used the natural elevations in the design of the system. The Aqueduct first began delivering water in 1862. The Lydecker Tunnel and McMillian Reservoir and water treatment plant were added in 1905. The McMillian slow sand water treatment plant was the first treatment plant in the system and was built to address the increasing outbreaks of typhoid fever that were caused by contaminated drinking water. This was followed by a rapid sand filtration system at Dalecarlia to address the continued population growth after World War I.

Today, the Aqueduct draws water from the Potomac River at the Great Falls and Little Falls intakes and treats the water at two treatment plants, Dalecarlia and McMillan. The Aqueduct filters and disinfects water from the Potomac River to meet current safe drinking water standards. The treatment process includes sedimentation, filtration, fluoridation, pH adjustment, primary disinfection using free chlorine, secondary disinfection with chloramine through the addition of ammonia, and corrosion control with orthophosphate. Water quality is tested continually at various points in the process. The EPA sets national limits on residual disinfectant levels in drinking water to reduce the risk of exposure to disinfection byproducts formed when public water systems add chemical disinfectant for either primary or residual treatment. The EPA also sets EPA sets limits on the contaminants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure that the water is safe for human consumption. Ensuring that the limits are not exceeded is the job of the owner and operator of the Aqueduct.

The Washington Aqueduct is a federally owned and operated by the Army Corp of Engineers, though the General Manager, Mr. Jacobus, and all employees of the Washington Aqueduct are civilian employees of the Army Corp of Engineers. The Aqueduct was initially built with federal funds, but since 1927 the operating budget and capital budget have been paid for by the Aqueduct’s customers. Today, the operating budget is around $46 million that is supplied by the wholesale water rates charged for the water delivered. The Aqueduct produces an average of 155 million gallons of water per day and sells that water to the District of Columbia (about 75% of the finished water), Arlington County, Virginia (about 15%), and the City of Falls Church, Virginia (10%). In total about one million people a day use water supplied by the Aqueduct.

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