After a water crisis was averted in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County representatives are considering the reliability of their local water infrastructure.
In parts of Prince George’s County, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission temporarily enacted water restrictions last week after a 54-inch pipe threatened to break. The main was repaired and back in service by July 19, thanks to a small team of workers who were able to repair a stuck valve, according to a WSSC press release. WSSC’s Prince George’s County customers did not lose service, the release said.
Stuart Freudberg, director of environmental programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said the aging water main reflects the state of some of the region’s water infrastructure.
The utility may have few options when it comes to pipe maintenance and replacement, depending on the location. In some parts of the system, redundancy exists, and secondary pipes are able to shoulder some of the pressure when necessary.
“In general, the utilities seek to have redundancy,” Freudberg said. “That clearly doesn’t exist, necessarily, in every single case.”
Valves in some locations may help ease pressure on certain pipes, but “the only true redundancy is a second pipe,” WSSC spokesman I.J. Hudson said.
According to WSSC documents from April 2013, the cost of replacement for all the utility’s large water mains, from 36 inches to 96 inches in diameter, would cost about $2 billion.
Montgomery County Councilwoman Nancy Floreen said the public is generally aware that WSSC is making improvements to the infrastructure.
“They know WSSC is working hard to upgrade their system, and all the ratepayers know about it because their rates have been going up,” Floreen said.
Freudberg said the price of replacing water mains hinders the process, and the cost would likely fall on those who pay WSSC bills.
“You can’t unduly burden your ratepayers with huge rate increases all the time because people, especially at the lower end of the economic ladder, can be spending huge portions of their salary [on water bills],” he said.
Many of the aging mains in the region are located near the Capital Beltway, Freudberg said, but old neighborhoods don’t necessarily mean old mains.
The Crown development in Gaithersburg, at Fields Road and Sam Eig Highway, is a new community currently affected by the aging infrastructure.
A developer for the project, Westbrook Partners, has attempted to negotiate with WSSC about two aging water mains underneath the site. The mains, installed in the 1960s, are 36 inches and 60 inches in diameter. No units have yet been built near the mains, but the developer is concerned that WSSC’s warnings of exploding water mains could hit home.
Westbrook Partners has offered to pay for replacement mains in return for reimbursement credits, but WSSC asserts the development is not eligible for the credits.
A major break in a 66-inch water main on River Road in Bethesda in 2008 led to a deluge of water that trapped 15 people and shut down roads.
The main broke before it was fitted with a fiber-optic monitoring system, like the one that warned WSSC of a possible break in the Prince George’s County main earlier this week.
“WSSC is very focused on ... setting priorities to addressing the most critical need, but they can’t always keep ahead of every single pipe and every single issue,” Freudberg said.
The economic impact of water main breaks or water restrictions on businesses is unlikely to be permanent, but it depends on the business, said Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce.
“For the most part, business interruption is a short-term problem that businesses would likely recover from,” Balcombe said. “However, we’re just coming out of a recession, and reserves may be low.”
For retailers, customers are often forgiving if they know a location was affected by a water main break.
“Businesses are resilient, and customers are resilient,” she said.
Balcombe and The Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce President Ginanne Italiano said they have not heard complaints or concerns from member businesses about possible water main breaks or related WSSC issues.