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Peter’s Take: Will Water Main Breaks Increasingly Leave Us High and Dry?

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Arlington needs to replace its World War II-era water mains faster than it’s replacing them. A sampling of what’s been happening:

Crystal City

On March 27, reported that “hundreds — and perhaps even thousands — of water customers in Crystal City are without water service this morning:

“Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services (DES) says it is currently performing emergency water main repairs following a series of at least three water main breaks… ‘Several buildings’ are without water, the Crystal City Business Improvement District said via social media.”

Is this really the way to welcome Amazon?

Virginia Square

As ARLnow reported March 21, a significant water main break on Kirkwood Road between Washington Boulevard and 14th Street N. left “GMU, Others High And Dry.” Video posted of the scene and linked in the ARLnow story “shows a large hole in the roadway filled with roiling, cloudy water.”

Columbia Pike

On August 30, 2018, ARLnow reported that “South Arlington Water Main Breaks Cut Off Service for Thousands Overnight”:

“The problems started … when [DES] received word of pipe problems near the intersection of Columbia Pike and S. Frederick Street…. By 10 p.m., they reported several other water main breaks along the pike … and determined that the S. Park Drive problem was “related” to the previous breaks.”

In a tweet about the Columbia Pike breaks, DES attempted to explain by saying:

It’s not as if the County Government hasn’t seen this coming for many, many years.

Winter 2017-2018

In January 2018, ARLnow reported that “County Crews Have Repaired Dozens of Water Main Breaks Since Mid-December.” At that time, DES pointed the finger at freezing temperatures: “When ground temperatures drop to the water main depth, the pipe material gets cold, but the water temp drops at a slower rate due to its movement…”

May 2016

ARLnow reported that DES was boasting that it had fixed “217 water main breaks in the past year.”

January 2014

ARLnow posted another story about water main breaks. That story highlighted the fact that “Arlington has 500 miles of water mains, 60 percent of which are 55 years or older,” with the oldest dating to 1927.

A county video accompanying the January 2014 story struck an ironic tone. That video proceeded from the flawed premise that water main breaks are always “unavoidable.” The video’s message: learn to live with them. The video explains why old water mains break. Surprise: it’s because they’re old and decaying!


While freezing weather was the proximate cause of many of these water main breaks, many other mains broke because they were just too old.

Arlington County needs a more aggressive program of proactive water main replacement, not the Que Será, Será attitude displayed in the 2014 County video and cemented by the inadequate amount of money County Government currently devotes to proactive replacement.

Meanwhile, the County Government is devoting too many resources to projects like the new $70+ million Aquatics Center and its new state of the art AV system.

A comprehensive recent water main study accurately captures the situation we face:

“[W]ater-main failure rates generally increase exponentially over time… . One could envision a rapid increase in break rates in the future… If a break rate doubles, the economic impact is significant; one would need to double the number [of] personnel repairing the breaks.”

The County Government should prepare and share for discussion with the community a Life Cycle Replacement Cost analysis of Arlington’s water mains as recommended by Dr. Sunil Sinha, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM) Center at Virginia Tech:

“[T]o meet the important challenges of the 21st century, a new paradigm for the planning, design, construction, and management of water pipeline infrastructure is required.”

Bottom line: replace more of ’em before they break.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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