Dampened spirits: January saw record number of water main breaks

The majority of water main breaks occur in the winter, according to WSSC. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
The majority of water main breaks occur between November and February, according to WSSC. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein) (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Forty percent of WSSC's water mains are more than 50 years old, according to general manager Carla Reid. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Forty percent of WSSC’s water mains are more than 50 years old, according to general manager Carla Reid. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein) (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Utility crews work on repairing a broken water main Wednesday morning in Fairfax County. (WTOP/Michael O'Connell)
Utility crews work on repairing a broken water main Jan. 31 in Fairfax County, Virginia. (WTOP/Michael O’Connell) (WTOP/Michael O'Connell)
A broken water main shut down a stretch of US 29 in Fairfax. (WTOP/Michael O'Connell)
Utility crews work on repairing a broken water main Jan. 31 in Fairfax County, Virginia. (WTOP/Michael O’Connell) (WTOP/Michael O'Connell)
The water main break at 27th St. NW near the Watergate Hotel. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
The water main break at 27th St. NW near the Watergate Hotel in Jan. 5. (WTOP/Dave Dildine) (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
The link between Rock Creek Parkway and I-66 Potomac Freeway is glaciated and closed after an eight-inch water main break under 27th Street NW. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
The water main break at 27th St. NW near the Watergate Hotel in Jan. 5. (WTOP/Dave Dildine) (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
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The majority of water main breaks occur in the winter, according to WSSC. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Forty percent of WSSC's water mains are more than 50 years old, according to general manager Carla Reid. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Utility crews work on repairing a broken water main Wednesday morning in Fairfax County. (WTOP/Michael O'Connell)
A broken water main shut down a stretch of US 29 in Fairfax. (WTOP/Michael O'Connell)
The water main break at 27th St. NW near the Watergate Hotel. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
The link between Rock Creek Parkway and I-66 Potomac Freeway is glaciated and closed after an eight-inch water main break under 27th Street NW. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

WASHINGTON — This is one record nobody really wanted to break.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said Thursday that there were 819 water main breaks and leaks this past January, making it the busiest for break repairs in WSSC’s 100 years as a utility — and winter isn’t even over yet.

“The record-breaking cold temperatures earlier this winter triggered a record number of broken water mains,” said WSSC general manager and CEO Carla A. Reid in a statement.

“I want to thank our customers for their patience as WSSC crews worked around the clock to repair broken mains and restore service as quickly as possible.”

“We have never had a single month with this many water main breaks,” said Lyn Riggins with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

“It’s not over yet because it’s likely going to be cold in February and there’s going to be more.”

A cold snap in early January made things a lot worse.

“We continually had temperatures below freezing for long stretches of time,” said meteorologist Chris Strong with the National Weather Service.

“Many of the days were 10 and even 20 degrees colder than normal.”

Here’s how the numbers for the last few months break down:

  • November 2017: 317 breaks and leaks (Previous record: November 2008: 374)
  • December 2017: 517 breaks and leaks (Previous record: December 2010: 647)
  • January 2018: 819 breaks and leaks (Previous record: January 2009: 607)

WSSC monitors the temperature of the Potomac River to see the correlation between a drop in temps and water main breaks, as seen in the graph below.

Potomac temperatures and water main breaks. (Courtesy WSSC)

Water main breaks haven’t only been plaguing Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland — the areas where WSSC serves its 1.8 million customers.

A Wednesday break in Fairfax County, Virginia, shut down a stretch of Lee Highway.

Alexandria, Virginia, residents were left high and dry when not one but two water mains broke Jan. 9.

And a Jan. 5 break caused major traffic headaches in Northwest D.C.

D.C. Water said 140 water main breaks have occurred since the start of the winter.

Though they have tackled the backlog of broken water mains, WSSC said there are still more than 100 leaks for which crews need to find a repair.

According to WSSC, its crews repair nearly 1,800 water main breaks and leaks each year, and most of them happen between November and February.

WSSC has already experienced 1,653 breaks and leaks in the past three months, the utility said.

That means this winter is all but certain to surpass the average yearly total.

WTOP’s Nick Iannelli contributed to this report.


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