By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009; A01
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."
Andrew D. Brunhart, a former WSSC general manager, told the Montgomery County Planning Board in 2007 that he was worried that the force of a large high-pressure main explosion too close to homes would wipe them out.
And Richard G. Hocevar, WSSC's general manager from 1985 to 1993, said he was so concerned that a massive water tunnel adjacent to the Capital Beltway could blow that he had it fortified with a steel lining in the early 1990s. He said he wasn't surprised when the concrete pipe buried near River Road ruptured.
"Knowing that kind of pipe is under there," Hocevar said, "I knew it could happen at any time."
Some of the utility's commissioners have spent years embroiled in county-against-county squabbles, paying scant attention to the growing pipe problem, according to former WSSC staff members.
The governance system "cries out for political reform," said John R. Griffin, WSSC's general manager from 1999 to 2004 and now secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Teresa D. Daniell, WSSC's interim general manager, said the WSSC continues to provide safe, reliable water. But she said she's concerned that the aging system could soon reach a tipping point, when pipes burst so often that the utility won't be able to get ahead of the problem.
"We want to keep it reliable," Daniell said. "That's where we are now."
At stake isn't just whether 1.8 million residents in Montgomery and Prince George's can flush their toilets. A reliable water supply is arguably the most basic and critical government service, the lifeblood of hospitals, fire departments, schools and businesses. Over the past four years, the WSSC has compensated property owners for almost $1 million worth of flood damage to homes, businesses and cars, utility officials said. Breaks also send chlorinated water into streams and other wildlife habitats.
Joyce Starks, a Prince George's commissioner who chairs the utility's board, said she is looking for ways the WSSC can raise money to replace aging pipes more quickly. Commissioners held a retreat in the fall to discuss aging infrastructure, she said, and she recently asked WSSC staff members to research how other utilities are raising money beyond increasing rates.
"The one thing that holds us back is we don't have funding," she said.
But "the water is still clean and safe," she said, "so there's no need for folks to have to worry about it."The Money
The largest concrete mains that serve as the WSSC's major feeder lines make up 357 miles of the 5,500-mile system. But those pose the greatest risk because the massive pipes can explode under high pressure, sending a torrent of water cascading out of the ground.
"We know they break catastrophically and without warning," Daniell said.
Increasing the risk, 7 percent of the large concrete mains were made by Interpace, a defunct company that the WSSC and other utilities successfully sued for manufacturing flaws that left its pipes more prone to rupturing.
Yet scrutiny of the large, highly pressurized mains all but ended for six years earlier this decade when the WSSC received no rate increases and lost half its maintenance staff to buyouts and attrition. Outside contractors were prohibitively expensive, said Jim Neustadt, the WSSC's chief spokesman.
Although the WSSC tries to inspect about a dozen miles of larger mains annually, it checked four miles total between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2006. In several of those years, no inspections were done at all. In fiscal 2007, after a small rate increase, the agency inspected 10.5 miles of pipe, and it did 8.2 miles last year.
Gary J. Gumm, the WSSC's chief engineer, said the eight-foot pipe adjacent to the Beltway that Hocevar, the former WSSC general manager, was worried about hasn't been inspected since it was installed in 1993 and is not scheduled to be until 2015. He said it is "low on the list" for inspection because the steel pipe is encased in bedrock 120 to 250 feet underground and has a special anti-corrosive coating.
Daniell, who joined the WSSC in 2007, said she can't prove that more rigorous inspections and repairs over the past decade would have prevented the River Road rupture or another this winter in Temple Hills that forced people in 90,000 homes and businesses to boil water for four days. Still, she said, cutting maintenance, although understandable during tight budgets, "can come back to haunt you."
She said those same years without rate increases also led the WSSC to cut corrosion-control work, leak detection and maintenance on valves that must be shut off to isolate water main breaks.
The WSSC's funding cuts were caused in large part by its history as a state-of-the-art system built from charging customers years of hefty rates. During debate over whether to privatize the agency in the 1990s, a state study found that the WSSC was overstaffed and inefficient. As it faced rate freezes from fiscal 1999 through 2004, the utility lost about one-third of its staff through attrition and an early retirement buyout.
Local public officials were "somewhat interested" in decaying pipes earlier this decade, Griffin said, but streamlining the staff and keeping rates down became the "main day-to-day goal of the agency."
Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, said the WSSC's inspection cuts were typical of those made by utilities faced with flat revenue and rising costs as they tried to maintain safe drinking water.
The inspection system has improved this fiscal year. The utility is on track to check about 10.8 miles, officials said. Workers now leave equipment inside the mains to capture the sounds of reinforcing steel wires as they weaken and snap, signaling when a pipe is about to fail.
Because the massive pipes carry so much water, only 18 miles can be drained and inspected each year while the system continues to operate. WSSC officials say inspecting about a dozen miles annually is more practical. At that pace, they said, it will take 20 years to inspect all the large mains -- if they have the money.
Even so, having money hasn't always meant problems have been fixed. The WSSC had funding to replace 27 miles of water pipe each year for the past four fiscal years. But for the first three years, it replaced 16.5 to 21.6 miles annually. Last fiscal year, the utility pushed it to 26 miles.
The unspent money -- $15.3 million over the four years -- went back into the utility's general fund, where it paid for other projects and helped offset rate increases, a WSSC spokesman said.
Gumm said the utility faced "fair criticism" last spring from some public officials who rejected the WSSC's call to charge an additional $20 monthly fee specifically to fund infrastructure repairs. Some Prince George's County Council members argued that customers shouldn't have to pay more when the WSSC had yet to replace the pipes it had money for.
The WSSC fell short on pipe replacement because it did not factor in how long it takes to move a new pipe project from design to installation, Gumm said. That caused the agency to overestimate the number of miles it could replace annually. He said that the three-year lag time is now part of the agency's more accurate estimates and that the utility is on pace to replace 35 miles of pipe this fiscal year.
"We're confident it's a problem that's been fixed," said Neustadt, the WSSC spokesman.
But even if they keep up the pace, WSSC officials say, it would take 200 years to replace the aging system because of funding limits.
"You don't want to depend on 200-year-old pipes," Curtis said. "That's not sustainable."
WSSC officials estimate it will cost $2.8 billion over the next decade to significantly renew its aging infrastructure, including speeding up work to reach a 100-year pipe replacement cycle.
And what if the WSSC doesn't receive more money? Gumm drew a graph with a gradually rising line that suddenly spikes. That would be the point, he said, when the system breaks down.
"The fear is that once we see this, we don't know if we can catch up," Gumm said. "It might be too late then."