Editorial -- What River Road's Water Main Break Exposed

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

WE WOKE yesterday morning to a frightening spectacle: motorists stranded on a road that, in seconds, had become a raging river. A large water main had burst shortly before 8 a.m., sending a four-foot wave of water and debris down River Road near Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. Some of the stranded motorists were able to scramble to dry land; others anxiously waited for rescue workers to arrive. In one particularly harrowing scene, a woman and child climbed out of their sport-utility vehicle and into a basket dangling from a helicopter. In what may qualify as a holiday miracle, the motorists escaped mostly unharmed. Enormous gratitude goes to the rescue workers, who braved frigid conditions -- and risked their lives -- to help those stranded.

To suburban Marylanders, it must seem that these water main breaks are becoming all too common. Last month, a break near Largo forced many Prince George's County residents to boil water for five days; in July, a broken main disrupted traffic in Langley Park; in June, a burst pipe disrupted service for thousands in Montgomery County. All told in November, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission crews fixed 376 broken and leaking lines, WSSC officials told The Post. As of Nov. 30, the WSSC had repaired 1,357 breaks and leaks for the year; last year, there were a record 2,129 repairs. It's easy to accuse the WSSC, which has a history of questionable dealmaking and shoddy management, of negligence. But there isn't a quick fix for an aging, increasingly creaky system.

Much of the piping was installed before World War II and is reaching the end of its expected service life. At current funding levels, the WSSC can replace about 27 miles of pipeline a year, a pitifully inadequate figure. Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which share the system, have tussled repeatedly over whether to raise rates. Montgomery officials have pushed for a rate boost; Prince George's officials, averse to higher taxes, have resisted. The economic crisis makes it unlikely that rates will rise much next year. Some officials hope that President-elect Barack Obama's potential infrastructure stimulus program could revive the system.

Yesterday's ordeal is a vivid reminder that, as the WSSC noted after the June incident, it is "virtually impossible and impractical . . . to predict the location of the next pipe break with any accuracy." It is possible to predict, however, that unless there is an injection of funding -- and soon -- a perilous drama like the one that unfolded yesterday could play out again in the not-so-distant future.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company