WSSC’s Water Woes

Disclaimer: Although I work there, I do not and never have spoken for WSSC. That is above my pay grade.

My employer, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), is about to conduct emergency repairs on a damaged (but not broken) 96″ water main.  There are other, older mains that are being pressed in to service to bypass this pipeline, however, they’re about half the size of this one.

WSSC found out about this break from a fiber optic system connected to hydrophones inside the pipe.  This was installed three years ago when the pipeline was last inspected.  According to what others tell me, the hydrophones detected a series of pings that seem to indicate the rebar in this pre-stressed concrete pipe (PCCP) is failing.  There wasn’t much time; the pipeline would have burst very soon had they not taken action.

While it is great that this problem was detected in advance, this event couldn’t have happened at a worse time.  We are in a dry spell in the middle of summer. Consumption rates hit 300 million gallons per day just a few days ago.  Now we’re facing a long holiday weekend where people are encouraged to set off all sorts of incendiary devices in their back yards.

Because of where the pipe is, (close to the Potomac Water Filtration plant, which produces the lion’s share of the water for the service area) the restriction applies to the entire WSSC territory.  So the restrictions are very necessary. But will they work?

Back in the mid-1990s there was a significant pipeline break that left WSSC unable to get much water to Prince George’s County for about four days. During that time, we pleaded, begged, and threatened people to conserve water. There was little evidence that these measures had any impact upon water consumption. I recall that at the time there were parts of the service area where the water was not even in the elevated storage tank, but had only enough pressure to make it half way up the riser pipe. Each night we could refill only a fraction of what was used the day before. Total available storage dropped each day.

By the fourth day of that event back then, a single house fire could have spread uncontrolled in some service areas because there was no water in reserve available to fight it. WSSC isn’t kidding about the need to cut water use by a third. I think that Prince George’s County was very lucky that there were no significant house fires at that time.

Back to the present: Even if everything were normal, resources are often operating at the edge of their capacity to meet the high demands of this time of year and the dry conditions. Now, we’re facing a holiday weekend, people aren’t listening to the news, and the risk of fire is higher than ever.  Against this background, and my past experience, I am very concerned that this restriction may not produce the results needed. I sincerely hope I am wrong about this.

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