Water Main Impedes Battle With NW Fire

Firefighters roll up hoses after battling a fire in Adams Morgan. They had to run hoses thousands of feet to reach sufficient water mains.
Firefighters roll up hoses after battling a fire in Adams Morgan. They had to run hoses thousands of feet to reach sufficient water mains. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A public agency has known for at least seven years that many of the District's water mains need to be replaced but failed to make upgrades in such areas as Adams Morgan, where firefighters had trouble drawing enough water to fight a major fire early yesterday.

A century-old six-inch main was unable to supply water quickly enough to put out a fire in a four-story condominium building, fire officials said. Crews then unfurled 4,000 feet of hose to Connecticut Avenue and 3,000 feet of hose to Columbia Road, where 20-inch mains are located, to get more water, officials said.

No one was seriously hurt, but dozens were left homeless, and damage to the stately brick building was estimated to be in the millions. Residents either escaped unaided or were evacuated. The fire's cause is under investigation, but the blaze apparently started outside, probably on the roof deck, authorities said.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin called for immediate action to address aging, undersize mains across the city. Both faulted the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, a quasi-independent public agency, for not moving fast enough to replace some 170 miles of six-inch mains, which make up 13 percent of WASA's underground system.

"Lines need to be replaced just as soon as humanly possible," Fenty said. "There's nothing more to say. The lines aren't big enough."

The water mains are the responsibility of WASA, which this year was criticized by city officials for not acting quickly enough to fix broken fire hydrants. Those complaints came after a major fire at the Georgetown public library, in which the first two hydrants tapped by firefighters were not working. They wound up using hydrants about two blocks away.

For the past seven years, WASA has been systematically replacing inadequate water mains as part of a 20-year plan to overhaul the system, officials said. WASA also has started replacing lead pipes and water main valves and making improvements to the city's drinking-water storage and wastewater treatment facilities -- areas that were neglected for decades prior to 1996, when the agency was transferred from the D.C. government, said WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson. Many older cities are dealing with similar issues.

"We've known [water mains] have been a problem for a number of years. The infrastructure had been neglected for a large number of years," Johnson said. "We were in survival and catch-up mode. Now we are in sustainability mode."

Johnson said that the agency has budgeted $15 million yearly for water main replacement and that the condition of the pipe, not just the size, determines which areas get on the priority replacement list. "If somebody else has a better idea, we'll certainly listen to it," he said.

But Fenty said a 20-year plan was unacceptable. "You cannot measure a time frame like this in decades," he said. "There is no accountability in that, no responsibility."

The fire, reported about 1:20 a.m., destroyed the roof and top floor of the 30-unit condominium building in the 2600 block of Adams Mill Road NW. Firefighters worked more than six hours to bring it under control. At its peak, it was a four-alarm blaze. By comparison, the fires this spring at Eastern Market and the Georgetown library were three-alarm blazes.

Hampering the firefighters, officials said, was the aged and inadequate subterranean maze of water mains across Adams Morgan.

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