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WSSC Prepares for Winter Weather

As the weather chills, water main breaks become a significant problem for the agency.

Anyone who remembers the chaos that ensued after a massive water main burst under River Road in Bethesda in 2008, knows the unpredictability of aging water mains.

Last year there were nearly 2,100 broken and leaking mains, with about 30 percent (647) happening in December. The average from 2000-2010 was 1,742 per year, according to WSCC officials.

Winter, said WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt, is when underground water and sewer lines break or leak more frequently.

The temperature of the river water varies, causing stress on the pipes, he said.

This year there may be more problems, with 25 percent of the 5,500 water mains in the WSSC system over 50 years old, according to a release by the agency.

“We are in the midst of an aging infrastructure crisis and it’s not going away anytime soon,” said Jerry N. Johnson, general manager of WSSC, “We’re trying to ramp up the miles of mains we replace each year and to do that we need to find a long term, sustainable funding source for our aging water and wastewater infrastructure.”

That's why Johnson and other officials were in Gaithersburg this morning as work crews dug up and replaced a problematic water main.

The work is slow. Crews have been working to replace three quarters of a mile of pipe on Stonebridge Drive since Oct. 11.

In fiscal year 2012, the agency plans on replacing 41 miles of water mains in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. It costs over $1 million to replace a mile of water main, according to John White, WSSC public affairs manager.

Water mains installed from 1931 to 1975 totalling 1,380 miles were made of either cast iron or asbestos cement and have reached their natural life span, according to the WSSC’s website.

White said a bi-county commission is currently working on a 10-year fiscal plan to finance future infrastructure improvements that are needed to update the system.

In December of 2008, a 66-inch water main broke in the area of River Road and Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda and sent 150,000 gallons of water per minute down River Road, according to an NBC news report from the time. As many as 18 cars were trapped and a helicopter, boats and fire trucks had to rescue the stranded motorists.

The WSCC outlined in its release a number of policies to combat water main breaks this year. Those include a 24/7 rapid response call center, 200 personnel placed strategically throughout Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, readily available independent contractors and hundreds of pieces of heavy equipment at the ready.

The agency has even created a new mobile app that alerts customers to service problems and allows users to report problems directly to the agency. They also released a guide to winterizing your home to prevent frozen pipes during the upcoming winter months.

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