HYATTSVILLE – Last Wednesday the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission advised 100,000 county residents to boil their water after a 24-inch main broke in Hyattsville, exposing the water to possible contaminants. There have been 1,199 breaks in Prince George’s County this year. According to WSSC, there are 5,600 miles of water pipeline in the county. When […]
HYATTSVILLE – Last Wednesday the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission advised 100,000 county residents to boil their water after a 24-inch main broke in Hyattsville, exposing the water to possible contaminants. There have been 1,199 breaks in Prince George’s County this year.
According to WSSC, there are 5,600 miles of water pipeline in the county. When pipes break, it forces residents to live with boil water advisories, huge traffic backups, and various other problems associated with aging pipes.
In July 2013, more than 150,000 Prince George’s County residents found themselves without water during one of the hottest weeks of the year when county officials were forced to shut down part of a 54-inch main to begin repairs. The main was inside the Beltway between Suitland Parkway and Forestville Road. The Washington Suburban Sanitary commission blamed aging pipes.
In July 2014, a 73-year-old pipe broke on Rhode Island Avenue at Crittenden Street, covering the road in a torrent of water during afternoon rush hour. Six million gallons of water were lost from the 12-inch main. Again, the WSSC attributed the break to aging infrastructure.
A mere month later, people in about 10,000 local homes and businesses faced yet another boil water advisory after a 44-year-old pipe broke near Piscataway Creek.
According to WSSC, the breaks occur for a number of reasons– aging pipes, rust, corrosion, varying types of pipe, changes in pressure and temperature.
“Every water system in the world is, by nature, a little leaky,” said WSSC Public Affairs Manager Jerry Irvine.
But, looking closer, it seems all of these things are simply small factors contributing to a much larger problem.
“It all comes down to the fact that it’s a huge system with a small budget,” Irvine said.
Ten years ago, the system operated under a “minimalist budget,” and now, Irvine said, the WSSC is struggling to play catch-up.
It costs more than $1 million to replace a single mile of pipe. Twenty-six percent of the pipes in WSSC’s water system are at least 50-years-old.
“Pipes don’t get younger, so if you’re not replacing them, you have 5,600 miles of aging pipe,” Irvine said. “Ten years ago, we were replacing less than ten miles of pipe per year. This year, we’ve done 60 miles so far.”
WSSC aims to repair 55 miles of pipe or more per year for the foreseeable future, Irvine said. Emergency repairs of broken pipes are not included in this number.
Officials at the WSSC hope the increasingly aggressive approach to repairing pipes will reduce the number of breaks, boil water advisories, traffic backups and wasted water.
This massive undertaking of revamping the water system isn’t exactly in the budget, though.
If the WSSC replaced pipes at this planned rate for the next 50 years, its work would be out-of-date by the time it was completed. By the end of the process, the pipes that had been replaced first would still be about 100-years-old and ready to be replaced again.
“That’s how big the system is and how small the budget is,” Irvine said.
He expects the approaching winter months to bring a spike in breaks.
“Cold weather amplifies the problems with the system,” Irvine said.
Extreme temperature fluctuation causes the pipes’ metal to expand and contract, triggering breaks. This past winter, during January, WSSC experienced 595 breaks. In February there were 187 breaks.
“It’s a national issue,” Irvine said, explaining that Prince George’s County’s situation is in no way unique.
“We get caught up in the state’s budget tightening,” he said. “They have to be careful of what the unintended consequences are of becoming overly frugal with infrastructure.”