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At WSSC, it's all about the infrastructure
General manager emphasizes vigilance to prolong system's life, keep it safe

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.

Post: What is the state of your underground pipes as we head into lower temperatures?

Johnson: Here again, I don't know that I've done the kind of assessment where I can characterize it as good or bad, but I think we've done all the things that we can do to ensure that we've got the resources to get out and address any of the needs that come up. With some of the monitoring that we've been doing through electronic devices that have gone in on some of the big pipes, we certainly have more information [about when a pipe is weakening] than we have [had] in the past. The engineering group is looking at the break histories and any place that we have problem areas to ensure that we have the resources and equipment and parts and all the things that we need to get out there to do the work that's necessary. We have contractors lined up in the event we need to bring in contractors if we have a break year like we did last year, which has to be an anomaly in sheer numbers.

Post: Why do you think the number of breaks last year was an anomaly? You don't think it's a sign that your system is going downhill?

Johnson: There was a combination of things that happened. Some of the pipes that broke were in areas that had a break history. Some of them were just a reaction to a sudden temperature change, which typically brings a rash of breaks. But I don't know that that was an indication that the whole system is just going down the tubes. But we'll see as the winter approaches and temperatures begin to shift. We're a microcosm of what's happening around the country where there's a need for additional investment [in water and sewer infrastructure].

Post: How concerned are you that we could have another break like the one on River Road?

Johnson: That, too, is a tough question. We've got a lot of [large concrete] pipe in the system, and we've prioritized to the extent that we can to look at the most critical areas first. We're hopeful we don't have a situation like that. But at the same time, we're looking at how we operate the system because the pipe is obviously not performing as one would have expected. We're looking to see if we have any other situations similar to River Road with regard to construction conditions and things that may have caused that pipe to break and to go about addressing those issues.

Post: How do you keep up with maintenance when money is tight?

Johnson: The inspections [of the larger concrete pipes] are obviously a high priority, and they're funded. Some of the inspections have to be done on a schedule to allow us to shut down [a pipe] in order for us to get into it and inspect it. That's one of the reasons it's going to take some time. You do it as you can. We're certainly going to be looking at seeking out additional resources from the state and federal governments. We're also looking at how we can be a more efficient, effective, leaner and meaner organization.

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