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WASHINGTON SUBURBAN SANITARY COMMISSION

New Alerts Will Flag Water Woes

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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Residents in Montgomery and Prince George's counties can sign up for a service that will alert them via e-mail or mobile phone text message if a burst pipe has cut off water service to their home or will snarl traffic.

Today, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission will unveil a new way of telling customers about problems in its water and sewer network, which serves 1.8 million users. Residents can sign up to receive e-mails, text messages or both to alert them when water mains burst near any address they choose.

All users will be told of major events, such as a water main break that affects major commuter routes, said WSSC spokesman Mike McGill.

"People expect to receive information about events that might affect their daily routines," he said.

The alerts are designed for dissemination almost immediately after breaks are confirmed. McGill said users who awake in the morning to find no water service should find an alert awaiting them.

WSSC is joining an increasing number of government entities that offer residents text messages with information geared to where they live or work.

School systems send alerts to parents when inclement weather threatens classes. Since the shootings at Virginia Tech, colleges have introduced text messaging as a way to tell students about unfolding campus emergencies. Drivers can get electronic notices of major car accidents, and the D.C. police recently introduced a text messaging system to send alerts about crimes soon after they occur.

McGill said WSSC decided to introduce its system because managers realized that an aging infrastructure is resulting in more burst pipes, which can cut off service, flood roads and affect traffic. There were 2,129 water main breaks and leaks in 2007, the highest in the bi-county agency's history.

Customers interested in receiving the alerts must sign up online by visiting Wsscwater.com. McGill said the company hopes 10,000 people will do so in the next year.

Among those likely to join quickly are environmentalists concerned about sewage leaks from WSSC pipes into streams and rivers, particularly into Sligo Creek in Montgomery and Broad Creek in Prince George's.

Neighbors of the two creeks have long tracked sewage spills in the waterways.

McGill said WSSC managers knew residents who monitor those leaks would be keenly interesting in the new alerts, and signed up several of them to help test the system during its design phase.

Alan Bowser, president of the Park Hills Civic Association in Silver Spring, said he and other residents have been frustrated by frequent water main breaks and sewage overflows into Sligo Creek, but he is impressed by WSSC's outreach to customers.

"It's an important issue to our neighbors who live on both sides of Sligo Creek," said Bowser, who since May has been testing the new system for WSSC.

"This is a good step to keeping people informed about these kinds of emergencies and about water quality."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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