As the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission nears the end of a more-than-two-year feasibility study for a proposed mid-river water intake pipe, scientists are taking their work offshore and underground.
Workers on a barge several hundred feet out from the Commission’s Potomac Water Filtration Plant on River Road are drilling three, three-inch diameter rock samples from the riverbed 90 feet below.
The work began July 5 and was scheduled to last three weeks, but may last longer due to weather-related delays. Recent thunderstorms have suspended work on the barge several times. The drilling is scheduled to take place on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and does not affect commercial or recreational boating on the river.
“You’re just checking out the characteristics of the rock. Are there fractures?” said Chuck Brown, a WSSC spokesman. “You do this any time you do any underground work just to check out the conditions.”
The rock sampling is likely to be one of the last steps in the mid-river intake pipe feasibility study, which is scheduled to conclude early next year.
If the pipe receives final approval, construction would start in 2-3 years.
In 2002, the Montgomery and Prince George’s County Councils approved funding for the WSSC study. The proposed pipe would extend 400-500 feet into the Potomac from the River Road treatment plant and draw fresh water from the river’s central channel.
The Commission says that the pipe is necessary because the current shoreline intake is drawing water contaminated with sediment and pollutants flowing out of Watts Branch, the stream that runs southwest from Rockville through the Potomac Glen and flows in to the Potomac just north of the existing intake.
Environmental groups oppose the mid-river pipe, arguing that cleaning up the Watts Branch would be more effective.
Water drawn from mid-stream has much less of the sediment and pollution, which collects near shore, officials contend.
“[Watts Branch] is a stone’s throw from our existing shoreline intake and it causes us a lot of problems,” Brown said. “We have a lot of tests and a lot of data that proves we have cleaner source water” with the proposed pipe.
Environmental groups, including the Potomac Conservancy and Audubon Naturalist Society oppose the mid-river pipe, saying that reaching farther into the river is a way of dodging water quality issues.
“IT’S A Band-Aid. … You’re just delaying the problem,” said Potomac Conservancy President Matthew Logan.
“No one’s disputing that there’s a problem,” Logan said but he disagrees with WSSC’s assertion that improving the quality of the Watts Branch inflow is infeasible or not cost effective.
“I dispute that. In fact there’s lots of things that could be done — very cost-effective things that aren’t going to be nearly as expensive, and over the long term will maintain that water quality.”
Logan pointed to a $150,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust that the Conservancy will use for extensive, multifaceted restoration efforts around Little Bennett Creek in lower Frederick County—an area of 15 square miles. The Watts Branch watershed is 22 square miles he said, and could be meaningfully improved for a fraction of the mid-river pipe’s estimated $15 million price tag.
In 2001 the state of Maryland issued permits to the Fairfax County Water Authority to construct a similar pipe, amid a nearly 10-year battle over the states’ control of the Potomac River, which eventually reached the Supreme Court.
THE PERMITS were issued before the case was heard, but Virginia pressed on anyway, hoping to set a precedent saying it did not need to seek permission from Maryland — which has historically controlled the river — for such projects. Virginia won in a 2003 decision.
Audubon Naturalist Society Executive Director Neal Fitzpatrick said that his organization opposed the Fairfax County Water Authority’s project and it opposes the WSSC pipe as well.
“My organization didn’t agree that the only way Fairfax County Water Authority could improve the quality of the water it takes in … was to build a mid-river intake,” he said. “There’s lots of things they could have done to simply reduce the pollution.”
Fitzpatrick said that means not only restoring watersheds, but moving further back and stopping pollution at its source. Much of the pollution in Watts Branch is the result of rapid development in central Montgomery County. More pavement and asphalt means more stormwater runoff, which collects waste and scours the streambed, collecting sediment as it flows. Sediment runoff from construction sites is a problem too.
“We know what it takes to keep sediment from entering into our watersheds. It requires some investment for sure. It requires addressing stormwater management for sure. I don’t think that’s an impossible task though,” Fitzpatrick said.
A WSSC document handed out at March, 2004 public meetings to announce plans for the pipe said that “best management practices in Watts Branch cannot be relied upon in the near future for significant source water enhancement” and that it would take decades for improvements in the Watts Branch watershed to impact water quality at the current intake.
At the same time, the Commission estimates it would save $800,000 annually by installing the pipe, primarily from the reduced need for treatment chemicals.
According to Brown, there are less salient cost savings too. He said that with high gas prices, the cost of trucking contracts are on the rise. The proposed pipe would greatly reduce the number of trucks removing sludge separated from the water from the River Road Plant. The Commission estimates that the mid-river pipe would reduce by more than half the 18 million pounds of solids being trucked out each year.
While the cost savings to WSSC would be unlikely to result in a rate reduction for consumers, it would curb future increases, Brown said.
But Fitzpatrick was unfazed by cost-related arguments. He sees the current debate over the WSSC pipe as a another step in determining the future of the Potomac River.
“It’s a little unclear when there’s the next big battle over the Potomac River,” he said.
During the Supreme Court Case he said, “It was our position that Maryland and Virginia could do what the Safe Drinking Water Act says we should do — namely, reduce pollution at the source. … That’s the same concept that we were hoping WSSC would apply to the Watts Branch.”
WSSC applied for its Maryland Department of Environment permits shortly after the Fairfax pipe was approved.
“It may be more of a long term investment to clean up the Watts Branch, but that's what the Clean Water Act says we should do,” Fitzpatrick said.