Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bethesda-Chevy Chase waits for water main overhauls

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A water main break in Chevy Chase left residents without water for a day, surged a crater the size of a school bus through the road and halted traffic last week.

The heart of the crisis was a 16-inch water main that at 70-some years old ‘‘probably died of old age,” said John White of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

The pipe network in Chevy Chase and Bethesda is among the oldest in the county — and WSSC is replacing water conduits in the area. County and regional agencies began fixing Town of Chevy Chase sewer and water systems last August. About 1.5 miles of deteriorated pipeline were replaced.

Last week’s incident happened in the early morning May 7 at Jones Mill Road between Jones Bridge Road and East West Highway.

As crews from the WSSC worked to stem the flow of water gushing onto the road and its grassy shoulder, about 50 residences in close proximity to the burst lost water service. More customers in close proximity lost water pressure.

Floodwater weakened the ground, causing a nearby tree to bring down Pepco power lines, cutting electricity to a couple of traffic lights.

The commission said crews quickly fixed the pressure drop and restored water before midnight to the homes near Rock Creek Park.

‘‘There was a significant amount of water in the street,” Kira Lewis of WSSC said. ‘‘A part of the road was compromised [by] pressure from the water main break.”

No homes were damaged, Lewis said.

About a year after the commission announced a 30-year, multimillion-dollar plan to fix its disintegrating system, the fate of downcounty water mains is still to be determined.

The commission has finished a ‘‘broad assessment of our infrastructure” and ‘‘age of our systems, age of our pipes,” according to Mike McGill, WSSC spokesman. A quarter of the infrastructure is more than 50 years old, according to the commission.

What that means is that Bethesda and Chevy Chase haven’t officially been tapped for first-choice in pipe replacements.

Water main replacements get priority in places with the most breaks, McGill said. The agency relies on a database, tracking repairs for its water mains. The commission tries to equally distribute work being done in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Hundreds of customers in Bethesda-Chevy Chase lost water service last year during a spate of water main breaks. Burst pipes caused thousands of dollars of flood damage to homes.

‘‘Our oldest lines are closer to [Washington],” McGill said. ‘‘Our water and wastewater systems grew out as the population grew out from the District.”

The oldest pipes are inside the Beltway, he said. ‘‘That’s why you have breaks in Bethesda and you have breaks in Adelphi.”

One major upcoming project may improve water circulation between the counties. WSSC plans a pipeline 8 feet in diameter running through northern Bethesda-Chevy Chase along the Beltway and Interstate 270.

The Bi-county Water Tunnel will be the ‘‘main supply for the entire area from eastern Montgomery County,” McGill said.

The tunnel project is already paid for, McGill said.

But WSSC is now evaluating whether it can advance other projects since the commission ‘‘didn’t get what we initially requested” from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for its fiscal 2009 projects.

The counties approved $913.7 million for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Part of that money will go to replacing 27 miles of water mains.

Pipes are still being replaced, McGill said, ‘‘just not on the schedule” originally planned.