Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Do You Like Running Water? Enjoy It While It Lasts!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 37 - water wizard

It seems that even one of the richest counties on the U.S. East Coast isn’t immune to massive water main breaks. Thanks to some shoddy pipeline materials, Montgomery County, Maryland (home of yours truly) is now under mandatory water restrictions and boil water advisories for the third straight day. What has this meant for area residents?

  • No tap drinking water. Because of the break, water pressure is low. For some residents and businesses, this means a higher risk of contamination; thus the water restrictions and boil advisory. For others, it means no running water at all.
  • A run on bottled water. In less than 24 hours, most area grocery stores ran out of bottled water due to expectations that the water advisory will last until the end of the week. That means those who got to the stores first have been hoarding whatever they could grab, leaving others high and dry.
  • Water use restrictions. Prohibitions you normally only see during severe droughts were immediately enacted, including bans on outdoor watering, car washing, and even flushing your toilet.
  • Restaurants ordered closed. Nearly every restaurant in the county was ordered closed for two straight days. There are also rumors that grocery stores are removing some produce stock they normally use water misters to help keep fresh.
  • Everyone smells bad. Today is the first day I’ve been grateful that most of the people I work with come from the counties north and west of this one. I bet there are lots of smelly places in Montgomery County today!

Fortunately I live in the one city in Montgomery County with its own water system, and it isn’t affected by the break. Unfortunately, while my workplace is in the same city, it gets its water from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) which is impacted by the break. That means we’re stuck with bottled water, hand sanitizers, and a closed cafeteria. But at least I can go home and suck on the kitchen faucet like I normally do.

We’ve had plenty of similar water main breaks in Maryland over the last decade. Most have been small and only affected a few blocks at a time. Others have been as large as this one, but they typically struck poorer towns where residents drink beer instead of water and only shower for major holidays. The fact that a break of such magnitude has hit the wealthiest county in the state may finally push Maryland to confront the need for serious utility infrastructure reform.

For half a century, utility operators in Maryland and most other states have generally taken a “wait and see” approach to maintenance. If it isn’t broke, they ain’t fixin’ it. This has been especially true for water and sewer lines which, being buried underground, have been out of the sights and minds of utilities, residents, businesses, and politicians. As a result, a good portion of water and sewer lines running throughout the U.S. is approaching triple-digit years in age.

So whose fault is this watery mess? Well, I’d share the blame equally between three parties: local and regional utilities, local and state politicians, and you. Why is this partly your fault? It’s because we whine and complain whenever our utility rates go up. Water, the cheapest of all public utilities, has been dirt cheap for far too long. As a result, most utilities don’t have the money necessary to perform regular maintenance and reconstruction of major water and sewer lines.

With utilities’ wallets empty and the suddenly realized need for massive water main replacements, that can only mean one of two things: either our water utility infrastructure will experience even worse breakdowns, or your super-cheap water utility bills are going to skyrocket in ways that’ll make rising gas prices look like normal inflation. And if you’re a fan of regular running water, you better not complain one bit when your $50 a month water bill becomes $500 a month.

Whatever happens with your bills and utility lines, any solutions are going to take a while to implement. In the meantime, we’ll all experience more utility breakdowns—possibly even worse than this one. So stock up on bottled water (larger containers are cheaper), keep some hand sanitizer nearby, and figure out the best places to install a waterless outhouse on your property.

Oh, and if you’re in Montgomery County and can’t find any water, feel free to stop by my house. I’ll sell you some for 50 cents a gallon—a steal compared to those 16-ounce bottle prices.

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