A 'ping' from the depths

Sunday, July 4, 2010

IT WON'T FEEL this way to Maryland suburban residents who are supposed to forgo watering their lawns, washing their cars, using their dishwashers and flushing the toilet, but the water main shutdown in Potomac this weekend is actually a good-news story -- sort of.

For one thing, the giant pipe, installed almost more than 40 years ago and possibly defective from the start, did not break. Rather, acoustic technology installed three years ago alerted officials at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) that it was at risk of bursting. That enabled them to avert a catastrophe of the sort that paralyzed Bethesda in December 2008 when a similarly large feeder pipe failed, turning a portion of River Road into a dangerous, icy bog.

For another, it looks like a stroke of good luck that the shutdown has coincided with a holiday weekend when many people will be away, so the digging and repair work taking place along Tuckerman Lane will not cause the sort of traffic tie-ups that might happen on a weekday. WSSC officials say that they hope to have the pipe repaired by Monday -- in time for Tuesday-morning rush hour.

But the "pings" from the fiber-optic cable installed in 2007 also serve as a wake-up call. This time, we got lucky. A major burst pipe -- with no warning "pings" at all -- remains a distinct possibility because the WSSC has not yet installed acoustic technology in the 357 miles of major feeder lines that are critical to the 5,500-mile system in the Maryland suburbs. That work is not expected to be complete until 2012 or 2013.

Then there is the pipe itself that was used for those major lines, some or most of which is a ticking time bomb because of a potentially fatal flaw -- reinforcing wire that was manufactured at excessively high heat, meaning it can become brittle when water leaks through the concrete encasing it. This is not a problem unique to pipe installed in this region. But it does raise the long-term issue of replacing the WSSC's old and worn infrastructure.

In this context, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which share an uneasy compact running the WSSC, need to devise a common strategy for funding. The two jurisdictions have battled each other on raising revenue for replacement, with Montgomery pressing for a more aggressive approach than Prince George's. The "pings," which are likely to grow louder and more frequent, suggest that the more aggressive approach may be a matter of necessity, not choice.

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