Water companies are billions short to fix country's aging water systems

Some of our nation's water pipes are so old, they are literally cracking at the seams.

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - You wouldn't think a Civil War relic would bring you fresh, clean drinking water. But that’s how bad things have gotten with our nation's aging water system.

Some pipes are so old, they are literally cracking at the seams.

The impact can be massive like the water main break on December 23, 2008, when a broken water main turned Bethesda's River Road into a literal river.

Five motorists were pulled from the torrent including a mother and child.


“I had to stop! I can't move the car!” a frantic and stranded motorist cried out to a 911 operator as she pleaded for a rescue.

Three years later, there was another massive water main break. This one was in Capitol Heights.

Luckily, there were no rescues, but the problem caused more destruction.

Then last May, it happened again. A broken water main on MacArthur Blvd. flooded homes. According to DC Water, the water main was almost 160 years old, installed in the 1860’s.

"I just heard this torrential-like raging water sound,” said neighbor Supriya Vestal.

The damage and subsequent repair tied up traffic for days.

"Yeah, traffic was pretty bad,” said neighbor Jeff McInturff, who fought the tie-ups for more than a week.

DC Water has some of the oldest water and sewer mains in the area. Records show 323 miles of its water and sewer mains were built in the 1800's. That's 10 percent of the entire system.

The sewer main at the Navy Yard was in such bad shape workers found a giant crack when they started a massive update to the main pump station. They had to put up steel reinforcements just to keep it from collapsing.

The project is part of a $2.6 billion project to revamp the city's sewer system and stop billions of gallons of untreated overflow sewage from being dumped into area rivers.

DC Water spends another $40 million every year just to replace old water pipes.

"But there's 100 years that we're making up for, and that bill has come due,” said DC Water CEO and General Manager George Hawkins.

Meanwhile, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), the largest water provider in the DC area and one of the largest in the nation, said it's spending $1.9 billion over the next six years to update its system.

"Our pipes, as you know, are out of sight, out of mind,” said WSSC General Manager and CEO Carla Reid.

“It's an uphill battle to try and replace them all."

So why do water utilities feel like they're swimming up stream? Because all that money they're spending is still not enough!

At current rates, DC Water and WSSC are replacing just one percent of our aging water lines per year -- and believe it or not, that's still a lot faster than many parts of the country.

The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation’s infrastructure a D-plus in its recent report card. ASCE estimated the country was $105 billion short of the funding it needs to fix the nation's crumbling water and wastewater systems.

Click to read each report card: DC I MD I VA 

“The federal government has not done enough,” said Congressman John Delaney, D-Md. “Neither have the states and local governments." 

Delaney introduced H.R. 1670, a bill to boost infrastructure spending by $1 trillion over the next 10 years, including major increases for water infrastructure. Delaney said he would close international tax loopholes to pay for the plan.

Despite sitting in the minority party, Delaney is hopeful that his infrastructure plan will get bipartisan approval.

“We are kicking the can down the street by not doing this, because that has an impact on our economy and the lives of our citizens,” Delaney told WUSA9. “But we're also increasing the cost over time."

The water main at Capitol Heights is showing problems again. Currently, WSSC has been making repairs to that same stretch of water main that broke six years ago. It was in danger of rupturing, but early detection equipment caught the potential disaster.

"We've been lucky but we've also been smart,” Reid said.

The question is how long can you outsmart, age?

So who's paying for the repairs that are being made if the federal government isn't? The answer: Citizens are responsible for the fees on the bill.   

© 2017 WUSA-TV


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