Water, Sewer Rates to Rise 9%; More Pipes Will Be Repaired

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

Residents of Prince George's and Montgomery counties will pay an additional 9 percent for water and sewer service beginning July 1, and more of the decaying underground pipes will be repaired under a new budget approved yesterday by local lawmakers.

Under the plan, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission customers will pay $13.50 more on their quarterly bills, which now average $155 for residential customers.

Members of the Montgomery and Prince George's county councils approved the $961.7 million budget for fiscal 2010. They added $1 million to the utility's initial request for repairs to its largest high-pressure water mains, which officials say pose the greatest risk to the public, because they can break catastrophically and without warning.

Inspections of those pipes were significantly curtailed between fiscal years 2001 and 2006, when rates were frozen or increased by as little as 2 or 3 percent.

The budget called for $4.25 million to inspect and repair those large concrete pipes and $43.3 million to replace 31 miles of smaller water pipes.

During inspections, workers will continue to leave behind audio equipment that picks up the "ping" of reinforcing steel wires snapping as a pipe begins to weaken. The 9 percent rate increase also will bolster other maintenance programs, such as corrosion control and leak detection.

WSSC officials said the additional money will do little to significantly speed up repairs to the antiquated system -- some pipes date to World War I -- but welcomed the extra funding.

Officials said $1 million would pay to replace 240 feet of the largest concrete pipe like the one that exploded on River Road in Bethesda in December, forcing firefighters to rescue stranded motorists from a torrent of water.

"It won't take care of the whole problem, but this budget is a step in the right direction," said Teresa D. Daniell, the WSSC's interim general manager.

At current funding levels, WSSC officials say, it would take about 200 years to replace the system's 5,500 miles of water pipes, which typically are designed to last 60 to 100 years. The WSSC serves 1.8 million people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The budget must be formally approved by the WSSC's six-member board of commissioners later this month. That is widely expected, because board members are appointed by each county's political leaders and have signed off on the rate increase.

The additional $1 million represented a compromise between the two councils. The Montgomery council had suggested adding $2.5 million, to be paid out of a surplus in the utility's general fund.

But Prince George's council members wanted to reserve that surplus to offset any future rate increases. They believe their lower-income residents already are hard hit by the 9 percent rate increase this year, said Craig Price, the council's administrator.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company