Thursday, November 20, 2008

WSSC Needs to Get Flushed, Part One

Of all the agencies we have to deal with, none is more frustrating than the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). Shielded from accountability to county government, overseen by a gridlocked board and nearly leaderless, this rusted-out, leak-riddled organization is a growing problem for the citizens of Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

Before delving into the governance issues plaguing WSSC, consider the experience of just one neighborhood: mine. Like other areas, my neighborhood is undergoing pipe replacement, a project that will last well into next year. A WSSC representative promised 24-hour access to a meeting of our civic association last year if anything went wrong. But things have been working out differently than promised.

Here’s one example from our many listserv posts complaining about low water pressure and poor service:

We live on [street name withheld], and our water never came back on after the scheduled shut off on Wednesday. By Thursday evening, we were rather concerned that we still had no water. We checked with neighbors. They all had water. So we called WSSC.

They gave us the run around. After the first call, it was “air in the pipes.” We were instructed to close our main, open the spigots in the house to let the air out, and then *slowly* re-open the main. We did this, and nothing happened.

Then, we called WSSC a second time and told them they result. They promised a person would come out to check our situation “in the next 3 hours.” This person has not shown up yet.

Then, we tried something on a whim. WSSC has connected a hose to our outside spigot. We turned that on, and the result was that we got a trickle of water from our inside spigots. After thinking about it for a while, we then tried shutting our inside main valve. We now have full water pressure.

Nobody at WSSC ever told us to turn on our outside spigot or to turn off our inside water mains. Did other people get this info?

Finally, we called WSSC for a third time. This time, the operator told us (literally) to call a plumber because the problem is not WSSC’s.


1. While they are replacing the mains on [street name withheld], water flows into the house in the *reverse* direction, from the outside spigot (but nobody told us this).

2, While they are replacing the mains, the inside water main needs to be closed.

3. The operators at WSSC are incompetent.
Neighbors often try to help each other figure out how to deal with WSSC. Here is one of the replies to the above account:

On Tuesday, after the water did not come on as promised, I called the Maintenance Service 24-hour number to check about the situation and then, when I was told there was a valve problem, I complained about the lack of notification to the affected families. The woman did not want to deal with my fussing, so she told me to call the correspondence office.

So I did today. That woman took my complaint about that as well as a second one related to your situation. Last Friday, when I went out my door about 8AM, I noticed dripping by my outside spigot. I notice a crew working (I think in front of your house) and went over to have them check the drip. When there, they attempted to get water into my house, but could not. That's when a supervisor told me to open my spigot from the inside and turn off the valves by the water meter. When I did that, my water worked fine. Then I was asked to do the same for my neighbor. So my second complaint was to ask why WSSC or the contractor did not notify houses with inside water meters what to do to get the water into their houses. If I hadn't had a drip, I would have had the same problem as you did.

I suggest that everyone who has had problems call this complaint department. Maybe if WSSC gets deluged, they will do something about communicating better about how to deal with this mess we have.
This is not isolated behavior at WSSC. The agency has severe problems of governance and accountability that go straight to the top. We will have more in Part Two.