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Crudbuckets. It’s snowing outside, and your water just got cut off. No soup, no tea, no hot shower to warm up. Why oh why do water mains have to break now?
Hearing cries of frustration from all over the city, I was curious about this question, and called up D.C. Water spokesman Alan Heymann to ask why. Turns out this is something the agency-formerly-known-as-WASA braces for all year: Most pipe breakages happen in the first few weeks of freezing weather, sending crews running around the city to get the water back on.
Here are some numbers. Nationwide, a water pipe breaks about every two minutes. The District gets about 400 each year—its suburban equivalent, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, got 300 of them in the last two weeks. Last week, D.C. Water’s eight crews were dealing with a dozen leaks at one point. The reason is pretty simple to understand: When you have a pipe carrying warm water suddenly surrounded by cold ground, it’ll try to expand, and break.
But D.C.’s aging water infrastructure makes it worse. The median age of our pipes is 76 years, many of them made of brittle cast iron before the Civil War. D.C. Water is replacing those old pipes with more flexible ductile iron ones at the rate of 11 miles a year, which is triple the rate they used to do, and double the national average (they could go faster, if the feds would step up and pay for it).
All of this is cold comfort, of course, for the upper Wisconsin Avenue residents left without water for several days recently. “This has been going on for over 6 days and is affecting our ability to clean ourselves and our home,” one emailed the news media last week. Heymann explains that was an “extraordinary situation”: In an area of the city that has low pressure to begin with, the water main break knocked out several buildings. Once a crew fixed the problem, they left, only to get complaints again—for some reason, a valve had been left open. “Close the valve, end of story,” Heymann says.
He also passed on this message from D.C. Water director George Hawkins: Please be nice to the water crews out there fixing things. They have to stand in pools of ice all day.