You have to hand it to WASA. Facing huge fines from federal regulators, the agency that brought us lead in the water now says it failed to warn us about the dangers in our H2O because customers didn't turn in their test samples. So it's our own fault. Next, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority will follow the record industry and start suing its customers.

Janice Kaplan and Michael Allen would probably prefer that WASA had sued them rather than go through the ordeal they've experienced over the past year. You may feel frustrated by WASA's obfuscations, but you probably haven't woken up to find a sewer flowing through your basement.

In February 2003, during a big snowstorm, the Palisades family suddenly found that three feet of raw sewage had burst into the house from a WASA pipeline. WASA's first posture was that "it wasn't their responsibility to get it out of our house," Kaplan recalled.

Only after Kaplan reached out to D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson did WASA acknowledge that, as one of the agency's officials said, "what happened in public space may have caused a problem in private space." But Kaplan's odyssey through WASA's bureaucracy was only beginning.

The family, forced to shuttle between friends' houses for weeks, watched as the first crew WASA sent walked off the job, with the chief saying there was "nothing further he could do," according to Kaplan, who kept a diary of the nightmare. Another crew proposed to pump the waste out the back window -- into a neighbor's yard.

Each task brought a different crew, and Kaplan said none had a clue about what its predecessors had done. Outside contractors showed up, too, including one who explained that he was hired to repair the family's sidewalk.

Which was very nice, except that, as Kaplan noted, "we don't have a sidewalk."

After three days of poking around, WASA crews pronounced themselves unable to find the sewer line that had burst because -- put down your coffee cup -- they had no maps.

One of Kaplan's neighbors, Sally Strain, put her in touch with the Washington Aqueduct, the Army Corps of Engineers agency that treats Washington's drinking water. Half an hour later, a map was hand-delivered to WASA's repair crew.

When I checked this story a while back with WASA's then-spokeswoman Pat Wheeler, she scoffed at the idea that crews might travel without maps of underground lines. "I've seen plenty of maps around here," she said.

But she called back the next day to confirm that indeed, "There were no maps." The D.C. agency that managed sewer operations before WASA was created in 1996 apparently didn't pass along many maps, Wheeler said. And the Aqueduct's maps weren't accurate. So WASA had to draw new maps.

Back in the Palisades, four months after the first backup, it happened again -- sewage in the basement, though mercifully less this time. Private plumbers diagnosed the problem as a break in the sewer main, but once again, WASA crews initially failed to locate the flaw.

Eventually, WASA's sewer division determined that a crew from the agency's water division had punctured the sewer line leading to Kaplan's house while repairing a water leak on her neighbor's property before the first backup.

To Michael Allen, the saga speaks "to a culture of incompetence and lack of accountability within WASA."

But over at WASA, it's business as usual. "None of this surprises me given the conditions of this old, aging infrastructure that was neglected for so many years," Wheeler said.

Last month, after half a year of cajoling and threats of lawsuits, WASA paid the family's repair bills. But even then, the story was not over. A couple of weeks ago, contractors hired by WASA showed up and started digging up the garden of Kaplan's neighbor.

Turns out that WASA had sent a camera under the ground and discovered a flaw that could have produced another backup. Now it was undertaking preventive repairs. Who could argue with that?

Except that once again, workers showed up without maps. A worker explained to exasperated neighbors that he was not permitted a map because of homeland security concerns.

Heck of a town.

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