New WSSC chief emphasizes vigilance to prolong system's life, keep it safe

Jerry N. Johnson
Jerry N. Johnson
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By Katherine Shaver
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jerry N. Johnson, the new general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, takes over the agency at a time when it, like many utilities across the United States, is struggling to repair and replace its aging infrastructure.

The WSSC is the nation's eighth-largest water and sewer utility, serving 1.8 million people in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. At current funding levels, WSSC officials have said, it would take about 200 years to replace suburban Maryland's underground pipes.

Last year, about 1,700 WSSC pipes leaked or broke; a 90-year record was set for the utility in 2007, with 2,129. Such breaks washed out roads, snarled traffic and led to boil-water advisories for several days at a time.

The WSSC is also working to step up inspections of its larger concrete mains, like the one that burst in December 2008 and flooded River Road in Bethesda, requiring motorists to be rescued from a frigid torrent of water.

The utility has a $1 billion annual budget and employs about 1,450 people from across the region.

As lower, potentially pipe-breaking temperatures approach, The Washington Post spoke with Johnson, 61, who was head of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority for 12 years, about his first impressions and plans for fixing the bursting water main problem. Here are the highlights.

Post: What has struck you most in your first month on the job?

Johnson: In any organization, employees are the most important asset. I think there are some very bright people here [who are] very committed to ensuring that these infrastructure issues get addressed, and they've been working very diligently to make that happen.

Post: What similar or different challenges do you see yourself facing at the WSSC compared to DC WASA?

Johnson: It's infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. We are a demand-response kind of organization, and we don't regulate the time or usage of our facilities. It's up to customers to decide when they want to draw water and when they want to send their water to us. It happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which means infrastructure in the system is going to wear out . . . so we have to be constantly vigilant to provide the appropriate maintenance to prolong the life of the system as long as we can and keep it safe. Then we have to be prepared to renew that infrastructure or rebuild it as time passes.

Post: What state is the WSSC's system in now?

Johnson: That's a very tough question, and I don't know that I've seen enough of it to be able to characterize it. Certainly given the fact that our [water and sewer treatment] plants are all within the required permit parameters, my assumption is that they're in good shape. We've got a lot of facilities. It's not just the pipes. There are lots and lots of very complex systems and facilities that come together to deliver water that's then treated and delivered to residents. I think the system is built as a very robust system with lots of redundancy and the capability to provide service well into the future.

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