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WSSC Faces Tough Crowd

Water utility agency argues that a mid-river intake is needed to protect water quality and reduce costs.

Local environmentalists took the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) to task for its proposal to move the intake for the county’s water supply away from the edge of the Potomac River where the Watts Branch enters and farther out toward the center of the Potomac River.

The West Montgomery County Citizens Association invited representatives from the water and sewer agency to speak at their meeting at the Potomac Library on Wednesday, Oct. 11.

WSSC’s filtration plant on River Road — which processes about 130 million gallons of drinking water each day for residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — currently has a water intake pipe directly offshore and about a quarter-mile downstream from the Watts Branch tributary. The water flowing from the Watts Branch watershed into the Potomac River is so polluted with sediment runoff that it is impacting the water quality gathered at the county’s water intake pipe. The sediment makes the water cleaning process more labor-intensive and expensive. WSSC wants to move the intake pipe to the middle of the Potomac River.

The current intake is just above Swains Lock.

Virginia constructed a controversial mid-river intake pipe in the Potomac in 2004 after an unsuccessful lawsuit by the state of Maryland to stop it reached the Supreme Court.

About 100 people crowded into the community room at the Potomac Library to watch a presentation by WSSC, and they demanded to know why the water utility is not solving the underlying problem by cleaning up the Watts Branch watershed instead of moving the intake pipe into the middle of the river.

"The big issue for me is where do we go after that? Where do we go after we pollute the river to a point that even being in the middle of the river doesn’t give us clean water?" asked Ginny Barnes, environmental chair of the West Montgomery Citizens Association, in an interview after the meeting.

Numerous local and state politicians attended the meeting, including Del. Jean Cryor (R-15), Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-15), Del. Brian Feldman (D-15), Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15), County Councilmember Howie Denis (R-1), candidate for delegate Chris Pilkerton (R), and candidate for County Council Marc Elrich (D).

ACCORDING TO Plato Chen, the environmental group senior scientist for the WSSC, polluted water from the Watts Branch watershed inundates the intake pipe with unusually high levels of sediment as well as unstable temperature and pH, making treatment more difficult than it would be with cleaner water.

Throughout the presentation, he stressed community health and safety as the WSSC’s main concern, and he spoke of the need to increase the number of “barriers” to dirty water, arguing that moving the intake to cleaner waters mid-river would be the most efficient route to better ensure clean drinking water.

“It’s about protecting public health,” said Chen. “As a water utility we take very seriously our responsibility as guardians of public health. … You always want to try to find the highest quality source to treat in the first place.”

Chen also asserted that a mid-river intake would be a more environmentally sound solution than the current setup, by reducing the quantity of chemicals needed to treat the water and less trucking back and forth of the chemicals and sediment before and after treatment.

WSSC hired a watershed protection agency to predict the effectiveness of different pollution management practices for cleaning up Watts Branch. The researchers hypothesized that a “moderate suite” of environmental management practices, such as the environmental protection measures that the City of Rockville is planning, would only reduce sediment load coming into the water intake from Watts Branch by 7 percent by 2020. An “aggressive suite” of practices, which would mean applying the Rockville plan to all areas of the Watts Branch watershed, would reduce the sediment load by 15 percent by 2020.

BECAUSE AGGRESSIVE CONSERVATION efforts would only marginally improve water quality, Chen argued, WSSC wants to acquire cleaner water to begin with. The water/sewer agency wants to move the intake pipe about 500 feet to the area between an unnamed island and Watkins Island in the Potomac River. The runoff from Watts Branch hugs the shoreline after flowing into the Potomac River, so water samples farther out from the edge have lower levels of sediment pollution from Watts Branch, Chen said.

Between 1999 and 2000, WSSC collected data on water quality at three locations between the unnamed island and Watkins Island, one location near the shore but upstream of Watts Branch, as well as one location near the shore at Watts Branch. The location upstream was clean while the location at Watts Branch was polluted. The locations downstream of Watts Branch but in the middle of the river were progressively cleaner the further they were located from the shore.

In response to questions from the audience, Chen acknowledged that WSSC is able to effectively treat water from the current site, though it costs WSSC significantly more to treat the water from Watts Branch than it would cost them to treat the cleaner water from the middle of the Potomac River. The cost difference would be about $800,000 per year, making the $15-$20 million project worthwhile in the long term.

“It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to do [move the intake pipe] rather than trying to do something in the watershed,” said Chen. “That’s not to say that we don’t think [cleaning up Watts Branch] is worthwhile, but the reality is that in terms of short-term impact, the only thing that will impact water quality in the short term is to get the intake away from the influence of Watts Branch.”

AFTER VIEWING sketches for a potential mid-river intake pipe that crosses the unnamed island, Barnes asked how WSSC’s proposal would impact the island.

“That’s a forested island,” she said.

“Yes, it’s forested right now,” Chen said.

His comment caused a flurry of anxious laughter and angry mumblings throughout the room.

Diana Conway, a member of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, asked Chen pointedly if that meant the island would not be forested after WSSC was done with it.

Other audience members demanded to know who the island belongs to.

“No one will take ownership of it,” said Chen.

“We will,” said Conway wryly. “[It will be] Western Montgomery County Citizens’ Association private property.”

Chen said that of three design options that WSSC is considering for the mid-river intake, the most environmentally sensitive is one to construct a tunnel conduit underneath the canal because it would require less deforestation on the unnamed island. He also said that an environmental assessment report showed minimal long-term impact to the island after reforesting and replanting.

Barnes said that a "full-blown environmental impact study" is needed, not just an environmental assessment report. She agreed that the option that leaves unnamed island forested is best, but she wants more information about WSSC's plan for a permanent boat ramp on the unnamed island and its plan to use the C&O Canal towpath for trucks.

During the meeting, Chen said that the National Park Service, which oversees C&O Canal National Historical Park, had told WSSC that both uses of the land were fine.

"This is a national park," Barnes declared angrily in an interview after the meeting. "I happen to know that the National Park Service, because of legislation about the canal, ... is severely limited about how much they can say no to a public utility."

DIANE CAMERON, an environmental engineer who serves as a representative of the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, urged the WSSC to take a more preventative approach to avoid degradation to watersheds to begin with.

“As you look to the future and you’re going farther out into the stream, is WSSC looking at watersheds that are not yet paved over?” she asked. “The next one in a lot of our minds is the Seneca Creek system. WSSC recently put a $20 million sewage plant there. That brings [the] specter of more development too … thus more pavement, thus more pollution.”

David Lake, deputy director of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, said his department is doing everything in its power but is constrained by budget allocations from higher government bodies.

“As far as stream protection in Montgomery County — yes we can do more, yes we’re planning to do more, yes it does cost money,” he said. “Yes we’re asking for more money from the County Council so we can have more money to do this.”

Lake tried to assure the audience that the project is moving along slowly.

“The condition in the capital improvement program is that this could only go as far as a study,” he said. “We knew what happened in Virginia and we knew there’d be community concerns. We didn’t want this moving too fast without the opportunity for review and input.”

The County Council approved a feasibility study on a mid-river intake, but WSSC must go back for another approval before any design or construction activities begin. Chen estimated that it would be one to two years before they return to the Council for approval to move forward.