Water restrictions to continue in Montgomery, Prince George's counties

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; B01

Repairs to a damaged water main in Potomac were completed Monday, but officials said water restrictions would continue Tuesday because bacteria were detected in water samples.

Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission spokesman Jim Neustadt said testing of two samples taken near the pipe revealed the presence of a "little bit of bacteria." The likelihood that the water would cause health problems was small, he said, but it was being tested again as a precaution.

Jerry N. Johnson, WSSC's general manager, said Monday that the agency "has never had a drinking-water violation, and we intend to keep it that way."

The precaution means that the water restrictions prohibiting nearly 1.8 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties from running sprinklers, watering lawns and filling up pools over the July Fourth weekend will stretch into at least a fifth day. Officials said the restrictions might be lifted Tuesday.

WSSC customers have been under restrictions since Thursday, when the massive water main in Potomac was shut off. Officials said that the system was being flushed and that more testing was being done to ensure that the water is safe before the pipe is put back into service.

"I think they need to get moving on it," said Elizabeth Savrine, 25, of Silver Spring. "My plants need to be watered. My garden's going to die."

Crews have been working around the clock to replace the damaged pipe near Tuckerman Lane and Gainsborough Road, a residential area off Interstate 270. Officials feared that the pipe could have burst after internal warning systems alerted them to significant corrosion.

The eight-foot-wide pipe, the largest in the WSSC pipeline, is part of six-mile-long underground waterway for customers in both counties. The damaged pipe had to be drained and removed several yards underground. Workers had done so by early Saturday and hoisted the replacement into place that afternoon.

James P. Keary, a spokesman for the Prince George's government, said the situation could have been worse: The pipe could have burst. "The one good thing about this is that it's only been four or five days," he said. "If the water main had broken, this could have been for four or five weeks."

During the repair process, WSSC restricted nonessential water use to maintain adequate water pressure for firefighters. Fire officials said pressure had not been a problem since Thursday.

WSSC officials wanted a 30 percent drop in water consumption, which can average 200 to 220 gallons per day in the summer. Consumption decreased by less than half of that goal.

On Saturday, water use had fallen by 14 percent, but the consumption decrease was 12 percent by Monday morning -- a figure "short of where we need to be," said Lyn Riggins, a WSSC spokeswoman.

"There hasn't been a tremendous change in consumption," she said. "But every little bit helps."

WSSC deployed its internal police force to watch for customers violating the restrictions by using water to beat the hot weather or water their yards. Officers had issued more than 260 written warnings and four $500 tickets to people caught breaking the restrictions a second time.

Police said many violators said they weren't aware of the restrictions.

But officials in Montgomery and Prince George's said they had exercised every available option to notify the public. "We probably needed a bigger headline on the front page of The Washington Post," said Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). She said she wasn't concerned about consumption because "things seemed to have gone okay."

Keary said the situation with the water main is an indication of how old the Washington region's infrastructure is. The damaged pipe was installed in 1969 and was last inspected three years ago. The water main was shut off the day that the WSSC implemented an 8 1/2 percent rate increase designed to improve the aging system.

Keary said it's better to have fixed the Potomac water main now rather than when it becomes more decrepit, and the same logic applies to other infrastructure in the region. "It's like getting your car fixed," he said. "If you wait too long, it takes longer to fix and it costs more."

Staff writer Phillip Lucas contributed to this report.

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