BOWIE – Although much of Prince George’s County relies on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) for its water service, there is an island in the middle of WSSC’s service area: the city of Bowie. Bowie is the only municipality in the county that has its own water and sewer system, and that presents a […]
BOWIE – Although much of Prince George’s County relies on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) for its water service, there is an island in the middle of WSSC’s service area: the city of Bowie.
Bowie is the only municipality in the county that has its own water and sewer system, and that presents a unique set of challenges for city officials.
George Stephanos, public works director, said the system serves about 25,000 of the city’s residents. Around 7,900 households and 100 commercial customers in the sections of Bowie north of Route 50, commonly known as Levitt-Bowie, use around 2 million gallons a day. Compare that to WSSC, with 1.8 million customers and a system-wide demand of about 180 gallons daily.
Stephanos said the two systems are connected through three interconnects, with a fourth being built, in case either system needs to help the other by supplying water. The city also sells some water to WSSC to distribute to a small area of Bowie.
The difference in scale has led to a difference in technology between the two systems. WSSC uses a computer system to monitor its treatment plants in real time, while Bowie operators are tasked with physically taking water samples and testing them manually.
Robert Trimble, superintendent of the WSSC Patuxent water treatment plant, said WSSC also did manual testing when he first started his 38-year career. He said the technological advancements have been amazing.
“They’re getting a snapshot every hour of what might be happening, whereas I’m getting instantaneous results. Right away I know what’s going through that filter,” he said. “It’s phenomenal. From where I came from to where it is now, it is phenomenal.”
But operators at the Bowie plant said they prefer the manual testing because it gives them first-hand experience with a wider variety of functions at the plant.
Another difference impacting the plants’ operations is the source water. WSSC uses surface water sources – the Potomac River and two reservoirs, Triadelphia and T. Howard Duckett – while Bowie pumps groundwater from six artisanal wells that tap into three aquifers: Patuxent, Magothy and Patapsco. The water in the aquifers contains no living organisms such as bacteria, which makes it easier to treat, Stephanos said.
“When water is coming from a deep aquifer, there’s nothing that is alive down there. It’s been down there for a long, long time. So really, our treatment plan, primarily what it does is remove dissolved iron from the water,” he said.
Stephanos said the city does still disinfect its water in case it were to pick up something along the way to the customers.
For WSSC, the surface water does contain a variety of organic, living organisms. Trimble said seasonally, his Patuxent plant sees blue-green algae blooms. The reservoirs also experience a natural phenomenon called “turning over” twice a year, when water and sediment from the bottom rises to the top, and that impacts what is in the water and from which depths water can be drawn. The aquifers don’t experience turning over.
“That’s the biggest challenge for me, is analyzing exactly what’s changing in my source water and try to track how it changes seasonally,” Trimble said.
Another seasonal issue for the Patuxent plant is manganese, a naturally-occurring element, which Trimble said is treated with permanganate at the plant. Trimble said manganese does not pose health risks to humans.
“The manganese is a secondary contaminant, which means it is not a health (concern). But it is aesthetically displeasing to see discolored water,” he said.
Some Bowie residents have experienced discolored water as well. Stephanos said the color is the result of iron building up in the pipes in a process called tuberculation. The iron can then break off the pipes and dissolve into the water, discoloring it. Like manganese, iron is a natural element and does not pose a health concern, just an aesthetic one. Tuberculation is not a problem WSSC is facing, Trimble said.
To combat the tuberculation in Bowie, Stephanos said his staff has been flushing pipes in affected neighborhoods. Long-term, he said the city is exploring options to prevent the iron from building up in the pipes in the first place.
Despite the differences in size, both water systems are overseen by local government. The Bowie City Council is responsible for approving the operating and capital budgets for the city’s water system. Councilman Michael Esteve said he has constituents served by both systems, and he feels the city is more responsive.
“Both systems have challenges. With city water, I’m at least able to get information readily and have some impact on the system’s long-term health through policy decisions,” he said.
WSSC is overseen by the county councils of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Customer complaints typically have to do with customer service or the quality of WSSC’s work on roadways, but Councilwoman Mary Lehman said the utility is getting better with addressing customer concerns.
“I think overall they’re headed in the right direction in terms of long-term planning, and customer service has gotten a lot better,” she said.
Infrastructure challenges are also facing Bowie’s water system. Stephanos said the storage infrastructure is in good shape, but the pipes in the distribution system are aging and will need to be replaced in the coming years. The system is funded through a dedicated fund using fees paid by customers, so the city has less money to work with than WSSC, with its larger customer base.
“Our rates are very comparable to WSSC’s, but I would imagine that WSSC, because it’s so big, has an easier ability to handle a large capital need. Whereas for us, when we’re faced with a large capital need, we don’t have the volume of money and the volume of customers. It’s more of a spike in our financial program, whereas they are so big to begin with they can absorb the spikes probably without a lot of problems,” Stephanos said.
WSSC is currently undertaking several large-scale capital projects, including pipe replacements, adding additional capacity at the Patuxent plant, and building an anaerobic digestion component at Piscataway Wastewater Treatment Plant that will convert biosolids from the system’s plants into energy.
However, those projects cost money. The utility, and the government bodies that oversee it, must balance its needs with the needs of the customers, including financial constraints they might be having. Lehman said they have increased rates every year, which is hard on customers.
“It’s not affordable long-term. People can’t pay more and more on their water bills, and that’s what’s been happening,” she said.
Esteve said as a city leader, finding the money in the budget to accommodate the projects is a daunting task.
“Our city staff are working hard to assess the system’s health and identify which parts require the most immediate attention. Current estimates suggest we’re looking at a $50 million project over 20 years. Our water and sewer fund only has $2 million in reserves. Therein lies our challenge,” he said.
Public Works staff are preparing a report, due to the council at the end of the year, that will further explain the problem and begin the process of planning for the repairs.
This story is part of a series on water and water issues in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.