Gusher: Arlington water main break causes commute chaos, closes schools; boil advisory issued

Arlington crews work on last week's water main break. (Courtesy Arlington Department of Environmental Services)
The big break: Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services said crews stabilized Arlington’s water system within three hours of detecting the water main break. (Courtesy Arlington Department of Environmental Services)
Police have periodically closed Clara Barton Parkway to get equipment onto Chain Bridge. This is what traffic is like when that happens, reports WTOP’s Nick Iannelli. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli )
A water main break early Friday morning caused loads of problems in Arlington County. (Courtesy Arlington Department of Environmental Services)
WTOP’s Nick Iannelli captured the water main break in Arlington County Friday morning. (WTOP/Nick Iannelli )
A water main break closed Chain Bridge Road on Nov. 8, 2019. (Courtesy NBC Washington)
A screenshot from a WTOP Traffic camera shows the water main break. (Courtesy WTOP Traffic camera )
A D.C. police cruiser is seen closing the Chain Bridge. (Courtesy Traffic View)
Arlington crews work on last week's water main break. (Courtesy Arlington Department of Environmental Services)

It looked like a wrecking ball fell from the sky and smashed down onto Chain Bridge.

A 36-inch water main break closed down Chain Bridge for several hours Friday morning and caused water pressure issues that triggered a boil water advisory across Arlington County, Virginia, and parts of Northwest D.C.

Here’s a look at some key details and the impacts:

  • A boil water advisory has been issued for Arlington and a swath of Northwest D.C. mainly along Wisconsin Avenue, which officials say is a precautionary measure. (See map below for specific locations)
  • Residents in D.C. under the advisory are being told to boil their water through Sunday afternoon.
  • Arlington County Public Schools are closed Friday.
  • Around 9:40 a.m., authorities reopened Chain Bridge but Glebe Road remains blocked between Va. 123 and Military Road. The bridge was closed for about four hours before it reopened.
  • Traffic impacts were felt around the area.

The water main break is located directly under the George Washington Parkway near the intersection of Glebe Road and Va. 123.

Reporting from the scene, WTOP’s Nick Iannelli said there was a giant hole on the right side of the roadway if you walk down Glebe Road and onto Chain Bridge. He saw chunks of rock and pieces of pavement stacked on top of each other.

“With that much water — and it’s at a fairly high pressure at this portion of our system — it was basically like a geyser,” said Mike Collins, deputy director of operations for Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services.

Boil water advisory

Many in Arlington County and D.C. were left without water, but crews stabilized the transmission main break and pressure is being restored to county water lines, according to an update from Arlington Department of Environmental Services.

However, the loss in water pressure triggered a boil water advisory for much of eastern Arlington — excluding Crystal City — as well as a stretch of upper Northwest D.C.

There is no indication that water was contaminated in the incident but the loss pressure could have made it possible for bacteria to enter the water, officials said.

Customers in the area of the highlighted map of Arlington (below) should bring water to a boil for three minutes, then allow to cool before drinking, brushing teeth, washing fruits and vegetables, preparing baby food and formula, making ice and giving to pets.

The area of D.C. under the boil water advisory is west of Rock Creek Park in the Fort Reno area and along Wisconsin Avenue.

DC Water said residents should boil their water for at least a minute before use until further notice, DC Water said. See a map of the area below.

Vincent Morris, with DC Water, told WTOP the broken pipe in Arlington caused a “domino effect” of weak pressure for some D.C. customers.

Those water pressure issues have since been fixed, he said. However, “out of an abundance, we are telling people in that affected area to boil their water if they’re going to use it for drinking, brushing their teeth … or preparing any kind of food,” he said.

Showering should be OK, Morris said.

Following guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency, the boil water advisory is expected to remain in place until around lunchtime Sunday, Morris said. Crews are testing the water and awaiting results.

The water main that broke is about three times bigger than most neighborhood water mains.

Most neighborhood water mains are about 8 to 12 inches, Arlington County Department of Environmental Services Spokesman Peter Golkin told WTOP

“This is one of the key points that feeds the system,” Golkin said.

Impact on businesses and residents

The water issues are impacting businesses and residents in the area.

Local restaurants are having to adjust to deal with the boil water advisory. Silver Diner in Clarendon told WTOP they are still open and using bottled water to cook and serve.

At a Starbucks cafe along Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest D.C., staff notified customers they were not serving water-based or iced beverages because of the boil water advisory.

Arlington County Public Schools are closed Friday. Several schools in D.C. are located in the boil-water zone but are remaining open, D.C. Public Schools said.

In addition, several D.C. recreation that are in the boil-water zone will remain open with bottled water, the Department of Parks and Recreation announced.

Road closures and alternate routes

When the water main break was first detected Friday morning, authorities closed down Chain Bridge for several hours.

Chain Bridge reopened about 9:40 a.m. but Glebe Road is still blocked between Va. 123 and Military Road as of shortly before noon.

WTOP’s Traffic Center recommends taking any of the other Potomac River crossings as well as George Washington Parkway, Military Road or Old Dominion Drive as alternate roads.

Chain Bridge carries an average of 31,000 vehicles between Arlington and Northwest D.C.

Listen online or on 103.5 FM for updates on the 8s for the latest traffic updates and alternate route information. 

WTOP’s Nick Iannelli, Megan Cloherty and Jack Moore contributed to this report. 

Colleen Kelleher

Colleen Kelleher is an award-winning journalist who has been with WTOP since 1996. Kelleher joined WTOP as the afternoon radio writer and night and weekend editor and made the move to in 2001. Now she works early mornings as the site's Senior Digital Editor.

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