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Janie Chen’s Blog

Crisis Averted...For Now: How We Can Learn From One County's Near Disaster

Janie Chen

Posted July 19, 2013

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As I sit here, sweating through this weeklong heat wave, nothing sounds better than drinking a glass of ice water or taking a cold shower.  With temperatures stubbornly hovering in the 90’s, access to clean drinking water is important for preventing dehydration, heat stroke, and even death from heat-related illness.  It would be unimaginable to go without access to water for days in this heat.

Washington Post

However, that’s exactly what residents of Prince George’s County had to brace for this week.  On Monday, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission warned more than 200,000 suburban Washington, D.C. residents to stock up on water and prepare to go days without washing dishes or showering.  A 50-year old concrete water main was in danger of exploding and required urgent repairs.  Businesses shut down, emergency services activated contingency plans, and residents filled bathtubs and trash cans with water.  Fortunately, utility workers worked quickly and successfully fixed a valve so that water could continue to flow while repairs were being made. 

Washington Post

The WSSC may have averted a health and economic disaster, but the threat of infrastructure failure is far from over.  As NRDC’s “Rooftops to Rivers II” report points out:

“The nation’s water infrastructure—drinking water treatment plants, sanitary and stormwater sewer systems, sewage treatment plants, drinking water distribution lines, and storage facilities—is also aging, and much of it needs to be replaced.  In some parts of the country, existing water infrastructure is literally falling apart.  Washington, D.C., for example, averages one pipe break per day.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure reported that Washington D.C. alone has over $874 million in drinking water infrastructure needs and $2.5 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.

In order to repair our nation’s water infrastructure, prevent threats to human health, and protect our water resources, investments must be made in both gray and green infrastructure. While the former delivers clean drinking water and sends wastewater to treatment plants, the latter prevents stormwater runoff from overwhelming sewer systems and polluting waterbodies.

Prince George’s County and its officials are familiar with the need to invest in green infrastructure.  Stormwater runoff from the Chesapeake Bay area carries sediment and nutrient pollution into bay waters, contaminating its ecosystem and water quality.  Propelled by a 2009 lawsuit by NRDC and other environmental organizations to control stormwater runoff and protect the bay, the Maryland General Assembly mandated Prince George’s County and nine other Maryland counties to institute a stormwater fee program by July 1, 2013.

Chesapeake Bay Program

For Prince George’s County, the stormwater fee will not only generate the $1 billion needed to adequately control runoff through green infrastructure, but it is also predicted to create 5,000 jobs, launch local green businesses, and increase the county’s economy by $1.2 billion by 2025.

Whether water mains or bioswales, treatment plants or green roofs, the challenges and solutions in Prince George’s County are representative of an urgent, nationwide need to upgrade failing sewer systems while moving toward green infrastructure. This time, 200,000 people breathed a collective sigh of relief having avoided both a water main explosion and a heat wave without water.  Others may not be so lucky next time.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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