July 18, 2013

WARNINGS BY the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) that water would be shut off in southern Prince George’s County caused enormous disruptions for residents and cost businesses money. Now, those disruptions likely pale in comparison to the catastrophe that would have ensued had the water indeed stopped and people not been properly warned. Nonetheless, the WSSC was not completely honest with the public, and that could well undermine its credibility when it next wants residents to take seriously its call to make emergency preparations.

What was called a long-shot fix to a 48-year-old water valve by two WSSC workers averted what threatened to be a multi-day outage at summer’s height for more than 100,000 people in Prince George’s County. A main pipe inside the Capital Beltway had threatened to burst. WSSC officials said Monday that there was no choice — they stressed no alternative — but to shut part of the system to make repairs. Mandatory restrictions went into effect as residents stockpiled water, businesses closed, hospitals went to contingency plans and county officials scrambled to organize shelters where residents could shower, cool off and get water.

Then, at about noon Wednesday came the WSSC’s surprise announcement that a fix — courtesy of the heroics of utility workers Brad Destelhorst and Tom Ecker — had been made that allowed water to be diverted around the affected main: The complete shut-off of water would not be required. Mixed in with the relief and gratitude, however, were understandable questions — including pointed remarks by Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) — about whether the WSSC was as forthcoming with information as it should have been. Why did it say there were no other options? Why the lag between when work was completed on the valve Tuesday night and Wednesday’s announcement?

WSSC officials said they had no realistic expectation that the valve could be fixed; even after it was repaired, they said they needed to wait to make sure it held. “We didn’t want to build up false hope. We wanted people to take action,” a WSSC spokesman told WMAL-AM. Surely, though, the utility could have stressed the seriousness of the situation without misleading the public.

The bottom line is that the WSSC didn’t think it could trust the public. That, unfortunately, may lead the public to mistrust the WSSC, which could have dire consequences in the event of new — and real — emergencies.