Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission members on Wednesday approved $12 million in funding to deal with the “unusual” number and pace of water mains breaks in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties this winter, which have put both jurisdictions on course to see a record number this winter.
“It is absolutely an unusual a high number of breaks,” said Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission spokesman Jerry Irvine. At least 1000 water mains across both counties have ruptured since Dec. 1, at great inconvenience not only to WSSC customers but to the repair crews who have had to remain on call for 24 hours.
The pace at which mains are breaking puts the area on course for a total much higher than the usual average of 1,200 breaks between December and March. WSSC saw an average of 100 breaks a day at the peak of the cold snap that gripped the area from late December through early January. But according to Irvine, as temperatures have warmed slightly the number of breaks per day is back down to the “more reasonable” 35 per day, because the number of breaks tends to level off when temperature remains constant and there are not rapid changes in temperature.
“Once the system has been shocked by the original blast of cold water we’re kind of steady state,” he said.
The $12 million in funding that Commissioners approved Wednesday will pay for water main replacement projects on Philadelphia Avenue in Takoma Park, West Forest Road in Landover and Accokeek Road in Brandywine.
Water main breaks are mainly due to two factors, cold weather and the age of the pipes, both of which this area has in large supply. Not only does freezing weather chill the water mains which makes them more susceptible to cracks or breaks, but old pipes that serve some of the more densely-populated areas of the region are more likely to crack than newer ones; about 40 percent of WSSC’s water mains are 50 years old or more, with some dating back to the 1920s.
WSSC’s is fighting a slow battle to replace its water mains, replacing about 50 miles of its 5,700 miles of water mains a year, meaning it if this pace continues it will more than 100 years to replace all 5,700 miles of water mains.
County Executive Ike Leggett blamed previous politics when he was on the County Council in the 1990s for a reason why the County sees so many water main breaks now
“You weren’t seeing the problem at that point in time because you didn’t have that many pipes breaking. It was only a matter of time,” Leggett said.
Leggett said he proposed allowing WSSC to increase its rates by one or two percent to fund the cost of replacing old water mains but was rebuffed by others on the Council at times.
In 2016, WSSC increased its rates by three percent to funding aging infrastructure. WSSC is currently in the process of making changes to its rate structure following a 2016 ruling by a public utility law judge ordering WSSC to reform its rates structure so that they do not discriminate against larger households.