Calmer Waters

Monday, July 6, 2009

BARELY SIX months ago, a harrowing drama unfolded on River Road in Montgomery County. A water main ruptured, shooting a four-foot wave down the busy roadway. Seconds later, the frigid water enveloped sedans and sport-utility vehicles, trapping more than a dozen motorists. Thanks to the courage of rescue workers -- and much good luck -- no lives were lost.

The moment, captured in riveting images broadcast nationwide, seemed to be a low point for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), the utility that delivers water and sewer service to 1.8 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The agency has suffered through more than a decade of fractured management, going through three general managers; for more than a year, an interim manager has been in charge because the utility's six-member board couldn't agree on a new top executive. Worse, the WSSC's pipes are aging -- and bursting -- with alarming frequency, but the utility has lacked the resources to keep up with even the most basic maintenance.

For the first time in years, however, there's reason to be hopeful about the direction of the WSSC. After 15 months without a permanent general manager, the utility's board of commissioners unanimously selected Jerry N. Johnson, general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) for the past 12 years, as its next top executive.

It would be hard to imagine a better fit for the WSSC. Mr. Johnson, the first general manager of WASA, transformed the corruption-ridden, slipshod culture of utility services in the District. As Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett noted in a press release, Jerry Johnson "guided [WASA] from an unrated agency, with a projected $8 million deficit, to one with an A+ credit rating and $170 million reserve in just two years." Better still, the WSSC is one of WASA's biggest customers, so Mr. Johnson is familiar with both the workings of the utility and many of the Montgomery and Prince George's officials who manage it.

Some activists have zeroed in on the single blemish on Mr. Johnson's résumé: the controversy over high levels of lead in the District's tap water. There's no question Mr. Johnson should have been more forthcoming but, as his colleagues point out, his less than stellar handling of the flap can be attributed more to botched public relations than bad management.

Another boost for the WSSC: Jack Johnson has nominated a replacement for Juanita D. Miller, the troublemaking commissioner from Prince George's who has been the major source of friction on the WSSC board. But there's a limit to the impact that Jerry Johnson's arrival, and Ms. Miller's exit, will have. WSSC officials estimate that the utility needs $2.8 billion over the next decade to maintain and replace its creaky infrastructure. At the WSSC's current rate, it would take 200 years to update the 5,500-mile system. Better management won't bring an immediate influx of cash or stop aging pipes from bursting. But, considering the WSSC's recent struggles, it's a start.

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