Correction to This Article
A graphic about water main breaks misstated the number of people served by Fairfax Water. The number is 1.5 million.

As Inspections Dwindled, Water Main Breaks Rose

A 20-inch water main break is affecting homes, businesses and traffic in the southern part of the busy Adams Morgan neighborhood early Tuesday morning.Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

During a decade marked by a record number of water main breaks, the utility that delivers water to Montgomery and Prince George's counties severely cut back on inspections of its largest concrete pipes and failed to spend all the money it had to replace parts of its antiquated system, its records show.

Some of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's biggest pipes have been inspected just once or twice in the past three decades, although WSSC officials said they should be scrutinized every five years. The 66-inch main that exploded along River Road in the winter, forcing helicopter rescues of drivers stranded in the torrent, had not been inspected in 10 years, WSSC officials said.

WSSC officials blame the inspection cuts on funding shortages earlier this decade. But ample funding in recent years didn't help it keep up with replacing worn-out pipes. Although the WSSC had $130.6 million to replace 108 miles of water pipe over the past four fiscal years, it completed 81 miles. In one year, the utility replaced 16.6 miles of pipe, although it was budgeted for 27. The unspent money was returned to its general fund.

The WSSC's troubles are symptomatic of a national problem. Out of sight and out of mind, underground pipes receive little attention until fire hydrants go dry or water gushes into basements. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 240,000 water mains break nationwide every year.

Just yesterday, a 22-inch water main ruptured in the Adams Morgan section of the District, flooding homes and businesses and snarling traffic in the southern part of the neighborhood.

"Cities throughout the country are all dealing with this, and we're no different," said Pamela Mooring, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. "Our pipes, I think, are a median of about 74 years old."

WASA has set aside $500 million for water system improvements over the next 10 years, including upgraded pipes, valves, pumps and other equipment, Mooring said.

Today, Montgomery and Prince George's council members are scheduled to approve a WSSC budget that would raise rates 9 percent. It would slightly increase the pipe replacement and inspection budget for a 5,500-mile system whose mains have been breaking with increasing frequency. Last year, about 1,700 pipes leaked or broke, and a 90-year record was set in 2007 with 2,129.

Current and former WSSC officials, who acknowledge the utility's problems, say it failed to anticipate how long it would take to install new pipe and lacked money for inspections in years when there were no rate increases. The politically appointed board responsible for overseeing the system is often bogged down by disputes over contracts and personnel matters.

Ruptures today pose more danger than ever because creeping development means that many of the massive, high-pressure mains, once buried in the countryside, now run near neighborhoods and major highways. Some, such as one now being inspected in College Park, are eight feet across -- nearly 50 percent larger than the River Road pipe.

WSSC officials say half of their water mains will reach or exceed the end of their life expectancies -- 60 to 100 years -- in about 15 years. Some beneath older communities, such as Maryland's Chevy Chase neighborhood, were installed during World War I. Even ductile iron pipes buried in the 1970s and 1980s are bursting, decades earlier than expected.

"They really don't know how long these pipes will last," said Larry J. Silverman, an environmental lawyer in the District and chairman of the Montgomery County Water Quality Advisory Group. "One way you get the maximum life out of a pipe is not to replace pipes until they blow up. That's what they're doing. You might not replace your car until it breaks down, but it also might break down on the Beltway."

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