P.G. water emergency in 3rd day


COLLEGE PARK -- In their third day of a water emergency today, Prince George's County residents still are required -- under threat of a $1,000 fine -- to use water sparingly but are not expected to see their taps run dry, county officials said.

The problem began Thursday night when a 60-inch water main burst in a woods off Calvert Road near the College Park Metro station. Yesterday, officials forced the closure of car washes that don't recycle their water, but those are said to be few and are the only businesses ordered to close.

Officials of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, who diverted the county's water to two smaller pipes, said they expect normal service to be restored by Wednesday.

"We hope before then, but we don't know when," said WSSC Chairman Robert M. Potter, just before inspecting the repair job. "I think it [the main] will be back on line before a crisis."

The 750,000 residents of Maryland's second most populous county were ordered Saturday by County Executive Wayne K. Curry to use water only for emergency purposes, to forsake showers and even to stop flushing toilets unless absolutely necessary.

"We're still in a critical stage," said Marjorie Johnson, a spokeswoman for the WSSC, which supplies water and sewer service in the county.

Prince George's no longer has water in storage, she said. "What you're using is what's being processed."

The biggest danger, she said, would be a major fire. Officials said the danger of outdoor fires has lessened since Saturday, thanks to rain Saturday night and yesterday's humidity. Nevertheless, the WSSC located tankers in strategic areas to provide water in case of more problems.

Ms. Johnson said the lowest water pressure was encountered in the Suitland, Clinton and Bowie areas. It was worst there because those areas are far away from the water source and because customers were not curbing their usage sufficiently.

Prince George's usually uses about 80 million gallons of water per day, said Mr. Potter. Saturday, the usage rose to about 100 million gallons. He assumed that, because of the possibility of a water shortage or shut-off, many people used more water than normal at the beginning.

While southern Prince George's still is threatened with "severe reduction of pressure," the commission no longer expects any cutoff of water service. Technicians made hydraulic adjustments to keep the water flowing, and Bowie, which has a separate water system, is supplying about 2 million gallons a day, officials said.

A nursing supervisor at Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton said yesterday, "We have good water flow at this time and are conserving as best we can." She said there wasn't much a hospital could do to conserve, but the center did switch to foam plates to minimize dish washing.

Mr. Potter said he and his wife did not shower, wash their breakfast dishes or flush their toilet yesterday. But many other customers were not complying with the emergency order.

"My neighbors are washing their cars," said Noni Lehman of Hyattsville, after she finished playing softball a few hundred yards away from the water main rupture yesterday. "If you saw my Jeep, it's covered in green, and I used to wash it every Sunday." Her Jeep will remain dirty, Ms. Lehman said, but she will not; she planned on taking a shower when she got home. "I don't want to offend anybody," she said.

On Quintana Street in Riverdale, less than a mile from the main rupture, Edward Gomez was wiping the soap off his black Isuzu Trooper. A steady stream of water poured from the garden hose curled on his lawn.

"Nobody told me [to conserve water]. I've been watching TV, and I haven't heard an announcement," said Mr. Gomez, who continued washing his car as he gestured toward a house where a neighbor had just watered plants.

Told that there was a $1,000 fine for violating the water emergency, his eyes widened. "I didn't know," he said, as he walked over and turned off the spigot.

Pete Peringer, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department, said he wasn't aware of anyone being ticketed and that police were not looking for violators.

Yesterday afternoon, workers were placing the final 4-ton section of pipe in the main and expect to complete the project by tonight, said Ellis Hurley, a site foreman for W.F. Wilson & Sons Inc., of Ellicott City. WSSC employees then will flush the main to test for leaks before restoring service.

When the main ruptured, it spewed sand, gravel and concrete up to 25 feet into the woods and provided much of the excavation needed to reach the pipe, which was 15 feet underground. A similar main break occurred in December 1993 in Rockville, officials said.

Prince George's County has had other main ruptures over the past 20 years, and several years ago sued the manufacturer, Interpace Corp., which has since gone out of business. Mr. Potter said the WSSC still expects to have problems with parts of the line, where he said the pipes do not contain the required amount of concrete or steel reinforcing rods.

But he said the continuing construction of a larger, 96-inch water main, a sturdier pipe of ductile steel, should prevent a repeat of the current water emergency. That pipe is now serving parts of College Park and Adelphi, he said, and is expected to be complete into the southern portion of the county within the next two or three years.

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