WSSC uses Potomac River to predict water main breaks

A water pipe split along its length requires WSSC to replace it — most water main breaks occur during winter. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

It’s getting colder, and that means a higher likelihood of water mains breaking in neighborhoods.

WSSC Water looks to a natural indicator to predict when it’ll see a flood of pipe breaks.

It watches the temperature of its water source, the Potomac River.

“This time of year, we watch the temperature of the Potomac River very carefully,” said Lyn Riggins with WSSC Water.

“When the river temperature drops to a new low for the season, we’ll see an increase in water main breaks a few days later.”

WSSC then uses that information to predict whether it will need maintenance crews on standby.

There’s nothing that can be done to prevent a water main break, she said, but “the sooner we know about it, the sooner we can fix it.”

The utility, which serves customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, sees an average of 1,800 water main breaks a year. The majority — 1,200 on average — happen in the four coldest months, November through February.

“We don’t have a board that lights up each time a pipe breaks,” Riggins said.

“We rely on our customers to tell us when they break. Those larger ones … we know because we see those impact on our system. But the smaller, more routine ones in the neighborhoods, we don’t know about until someone calls and tells us.”

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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