Rupture in Water Line Brings Misery to Much of Montgomery

By Steve Hendrix and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A massive rupture in a 48-inch water main disrupted routines across large swaths of Montgomery County yesterday, forcing residents to scramble for sources of safe drinking water and prompting county officials to order about 700 restaurants not to prepare food.

The break shuttered government facilities and closed day camps and swimming pools on what for many families was the first morning of summer vacation. Thousands of households in northern and central Montgomery were without water or normal water pressure through much of the day, and even many residents who never lost service were advised to boil tap water before drinking it for at least the next three days.

Water service was restored to all customers last night, officials said. But they said the boil-water advisory, issued by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, remained in effect.

The advisory affects tens of thousands of customers and covers much of Montgomery outside the Capital Beltway. Officials said boiling water was the best way to kill any contaminants that might have seeped into the system when pressure was low.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) ordered about 1,200 businesses, including food markets and restaurants, not to sell food unless it was packaged before the rupture Sunday night. Leggett, citing the advice of state and county health officials, said that he recognized the hardship on business owners but that he had no alternative.

"We were trying to exhaust every conceivable way we could" to avoid forcing closures, he said at a news conference last night. The order will remain in effect until at least tomorrow morning.

County health officials said there had been no reports of anyone being sickened by contaminated water. Symptoms could include fever and diarrhea.

For many, the first challenge yesterday was to stock up on bottled water, which immediately became a scarce commodity.

"I've been to two Giants, a Shoppers and a Safeway; there's no water in Montgomery County," said Johnet Travers of Olney.

The rupture occurred about 9 p.m. Sunday in a wooded area near Muncaster Mill Road. The cause of the rupture was still unknown yesterday, but WSSC maintenance officials said it might have resulted from faulty materials in the pipe's concrete-and-steel construction or erosion in the surrounding terrain.

Crews did not locate the problem until near dawn yesterday because the break was in an isolated area near the Meadowside Nature Center, officials said. By then, the rupture had created, in effect, a new tributary to Rock Creek as treated water coursed 100 feet or so down an embankment and into the stream.

Authorities think more than 100 million gallons spilled before water could be diverted around the break. Water service was restored to all customers last night, officials said.

Officials said the pipe was installed about 40 years ago, so it is not particularly old; the system has pipes twice that age. Still, engineers said the break was a sign that maintenance and upgrades are not keeping pace with an aging, overtaxed infrastructure.

Officials at the WSSC, which operates water and sewer systems in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, have long said they need more money to inspect and replace pipes.

The WSSC's pipes had a record 2,129 breaks last year. This coming year, the WSSC expects to replace 78 miles of water and sewer pipes, a tiny fraction of the nearly 11,000 miles of pipe in the system.

"We need to step that up," said Lyn Riggins, a spokesman for the commission.

Whatever caused the pipe to rupture, many residents said they were frustrated by the latest public works breakdown.

"You'd think we were in Baghdad, no power and now no water," said Charles Schoman, a resident of the senior living community Leisure World and one of thousands of county residents who lost power after severe thunderstorms two weeks ago.

Officials canceled activities in schools and libraries. Dentist's offices canceled appointments, and several dialysis centers turned away patients, referring them to other centers or emergency rooms. Adventist Dialysis Services in Silver Spring sent clients to Washington Adventist Hospital a few miles south, outside of the affected area.

Also disruptive for many families was the closure of county recreation centers, swimming pools and day camps. Working parents who thought they had arranged a seamless shift from Friday's last day of school to yesterday's first day of camp were left to make on-the-fly arrangements.

Some scrambled to schedule play dates with in-laws and neighbors, but for many, it turned into an unplanned take-your-child-to-work day.

"There are a lot of attorneys walking around with their kids today," said Neil Jacobs, a Rockville lawyer who spent the morning at the county courthouse.

Some families went on impromptu field trips to see the source of all the trouble. Martin Franke of Rockville, whose Flower Valley home had low water pressure, took his 4-year-old son, Lucas, there after Lucas's day camp was canceled.

"The water that usually comes to our house is out here, right?" he asked his son.

The WSSC tries to inspect pipes of 48-inch diameter and larger in the hopes of heading off major disruptions, said Mike Porter, a maintenance official for northern Montgomery. It is unclear whether the specific section of pipe that ruptured had ever been inspected, he said.

Porter said part of the same line was inspected about five years ago using a method that for the WSSC was experimental at the time: Sending microphones into the line while water was still running inside.

The microphones indicated a possible weakness in one section about a mile from where the break occurred, Porter said. Workers dug to that section, but found the pipe in good condition, he said.

Asked yesterday whether, in hindsight, inspectors should have done anything differently, Porter remarked, "I'd say, in hindsight, we needed to do a better job of making both customers and politicians aware of the need to improve infrastructure."

In February, WSSC commissioners approved an 8 percent rate increase to take effect next month. The board rejected a plan by agency administrators to add a surcharge to water bills to fund a major inspection and upgrade program. The surcharge would have added about $20 a month to typical bills.

Andrew D. Brunhart, then the WSSC's general manager, told the governing board at the time that without more money for infrastructure improvements, he would recommend dropping the words "entrusted," "reliable" and "clean" from the WSSC mission statement.

"In my view, the public will no longer be able to trust the system that delivers water to residents," Brunhart said in one of his last public statement's as general manager.

He left the job later that month.

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