Signs of Trouble Ahead on River Road

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The water main break that flooded River Road in Montgomery County [front page, Dec. 24] was a terrifying event that trapped motorists in rushing water and debris and forced schools and businesses to close. It is fortunate that nobody was seriously injured or killed, and the rescuers should be commended for their swift and skillful response. While the break may have seemed like a freak accident, the warning signs were there all along. Unfortunately, this disaster is part of a larger trend.

America's water infrastructure -- our pipes, wastewater and drinking water systems, dams, and levees -- is crumbling and outdated and has been ignored for decades. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D-minus grade to the water and wastewater systems that protect Americans' health and safety -- the lowest grade of any infrastructure category.

This isn't the first time the Washington area's aging water infrastructure has been in the news. Montgomery County had another wakeup call in 2006 when rising waters from heavy rains threatened to rupture the Lake Needwood dam in Rock Creek Park. Roughly 2,200 people downstream of this "high hazard" dam had to be evacuated while construction crews patched holes at the base of the earthen dam with gravel and sandbags.

It is time to bring our water infrastructure into the 21st century. The economic stimulus efforts being considered by President-elect Barack Obama and Congress provide an excellent opportunity to make the water infrastructure investments that Montgomery County and other communities around the country so desperately need. Not only will these investments create good jobs that can't be moved offshore, but they also are necessary to protect public health, safety and national security.

It is essential that we not only invest more but invest more wisely, too. Our first priority must be to provide essential repair and maintenance to our existing water infrastructure. This "fix it first" philosophy will help ensure that disasters such as the River Road water main break don't happen again and that dams such as the one at Lake Needwood don't fail. Of course, we should fix only those things that will continue to be useful and most effective for meeting society's needs.

But we also need to embrace new, 21st-century approaches to meet our drinking water, wastewater and flood protection needs, and that means investing in green infrastructure solutions. Green infrastructure uses the innate capacity of natural systems to provide critical water services such as treatment, stormwater mitigation and flood damage reduction. It means restoring floodplains instead of building taller and taller levees. It means planting trees and installing green roofs rather than enlarging sewers or building a costly new treatment plant. And it means retrofitting buildings and homes with water-efficient plumbing instead of constructing an expensive water supply dam.

The River Road water main break and the Lake Needwood dam scare were frightening enough. We don't need any more wakeup calls. The time for smart water infrastructure investments is now.

-- Rebecca Wodder


The writer is president of American Rivers, the nation's leading river conservation organization.

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