Montgomery County leaders are asking the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission to figure out how to keep water and sewer service flowing if the utility is knocked out by a major storm again.
A comprehensive study of electric reliability for WSSC’s water and wastewater systems has been under way for about two years but is not scheduled to be completed until next summer, prompting council members last week to ask for action sooner rather than later.
More than 100 WSSC facilities were out of service when electric power failed in the June 29 derecho, including the Potomac Water Filtration Plant near River Road that serves much of Montgomery County. It was out for about 11 hours.
Unlike hospitals, nursing homes and other critical facilities, the Potomac water plant does not have a backup power source, said Chris Voss, manager of the county Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.
Coupled with a 60-inch main that was closed for repairs and other system outages, the powerless plant forced WSSC to issue water restrictions that lasted 36 hours after the storm.
WSSC serves 460,000 customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said the county needs a more dependable water system for when storms hit, and it needs it soon.
Representatives of WSSC, Pepco and the executive branch met Sept. 20 with the County Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment committee, which is chaired by Berliner, to discuss how Montgomery County reached the brink of a water crisis in June and how to prevent it from happening again.
Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, asked if WSSC could look at generators for key locations now rather than wait for the conclusion of its large study.
WSSC has six portable generators that are capable of powering smaller facilities and it is in the process of purchasing three more, said Jay Price, production team chief for WSSC.
Those generators range in size from 40 to 450 kilowatts. The Potomac Water Filtration Plant, the major facility in Montgomery County that lost power during the storm, needs about 20 megawatts, he said. A megawatt is 1,000 kilowatts.
More than just electric power factors into a reliable water system, said Karen Wright, WSSC system control group leader, noting that not having a water main open greatly affected how much was flowing after the last storm.
A 100 percent fail-proof system can be built, but at a cost, she said.
Greater water storage in Laytonsville already is planned for 2013 and in Clarksburg for 2017. Also planned are upgrades at the Patuxent water plant and the Rocky Gorge pump station.
Price said June 29 had a high temperature of 103 degrees, producing high water demand of 206 million gallons that day. WSSC also had implemented electricity conservation measures, and only 114 million gallons of water of a possible 174 million gallons were in storage.
“We had no clue this derecho was going to hit or even what a derecho was,” he said, noting the day’s forecast was scattered thunderstorms.
The derecho was the fourth time in two years the water treatment plant in Potomac lost power, Price said.
WSSC’s water and wastewater systems rely on electricity to operate and 109 of its facilities — among them three maintenance depots, two water treatment plants, 12 water pumping stations, 36 water storage facilities, seven wastewater treatment plants and 37 wastewater pumping stations — lost power at some point during the derecho, said Jerry Johnson, general manager and chief executive officer.
“If you want to describe a perfect storm of sorts, this was indeed the perfect storm for us,” he said.
Montgomery’s Fire and Rescue Service acutely felt the decrease in water this summer.
“When we don't have that water available, for whatever reason, the reliability and redundancy of the fire department to be able to deal with major events is impacted severely,” said Steven Lohr, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Operations captain.
County Fire Chief Richard Bowers said it had to pull tanker trucks from areas of the county without fire hydrants to adequately respond to calls after the storm.
“We kept the county safe with the resources we had, but we were compromised,” Bowers said.