A replay of last week's water crisis, right down to the public confusion and the arguments over who suffered and why, could occur any day in the District or Northern Virginia, or even again tomorrow in the Maryland suburbs.
Another electrical fire, or lightning or some other disaster that knocked out crucial equipment would mean the same rush to get water distribution organized, the same effort to get people to conserve, the same jammed telephone lines and the same mixed results that occurred in Montgomery County, according to officials from all three jurisdictions.
Even the one threat that everyone has talked about - a long-term drop in the Potomac River water level - still would catch much of the area with its pipes dry.
All this reflects a haphazard collection of partial plans for dealing with such situations, plans either partially carried out or stalled by interjurisdictional differences and budgetary quarrels.
"In the old days of civil defense there were some plans developed, but they're now probably buried in so much dust you couldn't find them," said J. J. Corballis, director of the Fairfax County Water Authority.
"Sure, the same thing would happen here" if there was a power pump failure at the Dalecarlia reservoir serving the Washington Aqueduct system, according to Col. G. K. Withers, Baltimore district engineer for the Corps of Engineers.The Washington Aqueduct supplies D.C., Arlington and Falls Church.
"We have a plan for natural disasters in general and water supply is one of the things that is affected . . . but there's no plan sitting on the shelf labeled waters shortage plan," said David J. Watkins, deputy coordinator of Fairfax County's Office of Emergency Services.
"Sure, the same thing could happen in Fairfax," Corballis said. "In 1972 we had it under different circumstances (Tropical Storm Agnes) but exactly the same result - the plant operations were disrupted for 25 hours.
The Washington Suburan Sanitary Commission (WSSC), where last week's crisis centered, is one of six jurisdictions that have adopted measures in accordance with a Water Conservation Agreement proposed by the Council of Governments in 1974. The others are Prince George's County, Alexandria, Fairfax City, Falls Church and the Washington Aqueduct (the Corps of Engineers).
The plans all authorize restrictions on water use at "alert," "restriction" or "emergency" warnings from COG, based on water demand and river level figures. At the "alert" level, when water use equals 50 per cent of river flow, the situation is to be monitored. When demand reaches 80 per cent of Potomac volume, voluntary restrictions may be asked, and they become mandatory at emergency levels where water use is expected to equal or exceed river flow.
The problem is converting the plan to results."On Wednesday, when we had the fire at the pump, we asked people to conserve and we got the highest demands of the year. It scared the hell out of us," said Vera Berkman, WSSC commission board chairperson.
Many people, it turned out, got conflicting reports about the nature and severity of the situation, depending on which local official or engineer they heard interviewed on which radio or television station. If water authority officials communicated well among themselves, notifying each other of actions taken and aid offered within a few hours of the fire , communications to the public on what to do were harder.
"We've been going a little crazy on this," said Mark Effron, assistant radio news director at WTOP on Thursday. "There's been one stream of information coming from the plant itself, the engineers there who are more optimistic, and another from the WSSC office that's pessimistic, saying it could be days or weeks."
Unsure of what to do, citizens jammed telephone lines trying to find out. WSSC officials were so busy answering calls that they reportedly did not at first monitor any broadcasts to find out what the people were being told.
Neither could they call any of the 270 firms on the "major user" list to order them to close when an emergency finally was declared on Thursday. Since businessmen had no way of knowing whether they were on the list and could not get through on the phones, some stores closed and some did not.
There was little preplanning evident in the kind of conservation measures asked. "We're been telling the listeners to use measures we've come up with ourselves - wash water to flush the toilet, shorter showers, common things like that," said WRC radio anchorman Wendell Goler. The notion of calling for reduced toilet flushings originated with Montgomery County Councilman John Menke, who told WSSC general manager Robert S. McGarry, "You're got to give everybody a goal."
There was a lot of unplanned initiative that helped. Fire marshals toured construction sites and ordered welding and other fire uses halted. District fire hydrants were connected over the city line into the WSSC system. Tanker trucks were sent out to the reservoirs and then parked at schools to provide emergency water supplies.
But the tanker supply locations, the halt to welding and water wastage and the shutdowns of major users probably could have all been pre-planned for coordinated announcement as soon as it became necessary, according to Buddy Harris of the Board of Trade's water resources committee. "I doubt anyone has even thought of developing it," he said.
Backup pumping capacity is not always the answer. WSSC had several extra pumps "but backing up the control panel (where the fire was) would be like having another whole treatment plant, like having a homeowner with two houses so that if one burned down he could walk into the other," said Cameron Wiegand of COG.
"You can have no backup at one extreme or complete duplication sitting idle waiting for something to happen," said Fairfax's Corballis. "New York and Chicago don't have any backup. If something happens to one plant, it's out of business. But they do have the capability of moving water around the system that we don't have here."
There are no major connections between the area's three major water systems. Water in Fairfax's Occoquan Reservoir could not be drawn down to help the WSSC last week. Pipelines get narrower as they move from the heart of each jurisdiction toward the city limits, creating what Wiegand called "an hourglass effect" on the borders.
"Interconnecting couldn't have prevented the problem but it could really reduce the impact on any one jurisdiction by sharing the water we have," he said.
A 1974 study put the price of five interconnections among the three systems at $52 million. Wiegand continued. A report by COG's Daniel P. Sheer said in May that current costs of the pipelines plus new water intakes and a treatment plant addition would have to be recalculated.
These and other proposals requiring area cooperation have all bogged down in jurisdictional quarrels.Projected dams and reservoirs have met fierce local resistance at the proposed sities in Augusta County. Va., near Frederick, Md., and at Taylorstown in Loudoun County.
One dam under construction on the north branch of the Potomac, near Bloomington, Md.; will be able to add 135 million gallons of water a day to the Potomac if needed, or about 30 per cent of the all-time record demand. Completion is set for 1980, "but by that time demand will take up all that capacity and we'll still need more facilities," said Corballis.
Nine jurisdictions have yet to implement COG's recommended conservation alert measures "since they feel the measures don't apply to their particular situation," said Wiegand. Many housing construction devices to have water are readily available, and the Board of Trade is "on the precipice of beginning to make recommendations" for their use.
The hearings are set for July 12 in building a pilot emergency pumping system to take water from the Potomac estuary below Great Falls if needed, for completion late next year. The corps is also holding a series of public hearings on water supply needs and suggestions for solutions to the problem.
The hearings are set for July 12 in Charles County, Md., July 13 in Fairfax City, July 14 in Loudoun County, July 18 in Rockville, July 20 in Falls Church and July 21 and 27 in the District.