- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) plans to increase customers’ utility bills between 7 percent and 9.5 percent each year until 2015 to pay for long-neglected capital improvements and to satisfy clean-water regulations.

“The projection of rates basically follows a line where we will have to make these massive expenditures or take on that debt,” WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson told editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday.

“We don’t do this without some empathy for the customer,” he said.

Facing a cost of $2.2 billion for capital projects, WASA officials propose a 7.5 percent rate increase that would be effective Oct. 1 if approved by the board of directors, increasing the average residential customer’s bill by $3.42 a month.

Officials also propose an 8.5 percent rate increase in 2009 and 9.5 percent increases in 2010 and 2011.

Mr. Johnson said rate increases in recent years have averaged between 4 percent and 5 percent.

The proposed rate increases would go toward paying for projects that include $443 million to replace 34,000 lead service lines in the District by 2016 and funding $568 million in wastewater-treatment plant projects.

A federally mandated program to reduce sewer overflow in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek over a 20-year period also will cost $2 billion.

Mr. Johnson said WASA has only received roughly $100 million in federal funds so far for that project, meaning much of the cost burden will fall on D.C. ratepayers.

But he pointed out that the agency’s board usually approves increases slightly lower than what is initially proposed.

“The provision of safe drinking water and wastewater services are probably the single most critical elements of safety and sanitation in any community that we visit or go to,” Mr. Johnson said. “People obviously take it for granted because here in America you turn on the tap, and it flows.”

Established in 1996, WASA operates independently of the D.C. government. It acquires drinking water from the Washington Aqueduct and provides services for the District and parts of its suburbs.

The agency has been successful in maintaining safe lead levels in D.C. drinking water over the past two years after thousands of homes in 2004 reported lead levels above the federal safety limit. Elevated lead levels were found in some D.C. schools this year.

Mr. Johnson said the levels were found at “isolated facilities” within the schools and were the result of lead found in some school fixtures or the effect of standing water.

WASA also is working to resolve water-pressure problems east of the Anacostia River, which Mr. Johnson acknowledged is underserved.

Officials have committed about $70 million for work in the Anacostia area that will include a new pumping station. The agency also is replacing water mains on Martin Luther King Avenue and has plans to build a new tower on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital that will hold about 2 million gallons of water.

WASA came under fire this week after two fire hydrants did not work near the scene of a three-alarm blaze at the Georgetown Public Library.

One of the hydrants across the street from the library had been reported to be leaking on Feb. 6 and was shut off, Mr. Johnson said. But that information was never relayed to the D.C. fire department as it should have been.

Mr. Johnson said the agency is working to find out who is responsible for the report not being shared.

“Somehow we slipped, and we did not get the information to the fire department, and it did not go into our computerized work-order system,” he said.

The agency is responsible for inspecting and maintaining roughly 8,700 fire hydrants in the city system, officials said, and has two two-man crews that can be supplemented by contractors to inspect and perform maintenance on hydrants.

Two other crews — one working for WASA and one from a contractor — are charged with replacing hydrants and had switched out 375 of the devices through March.

Mr. Johnson said WASA is planning to implement a program that will incorporate Global Imaging Systems technology and coordinate inspections with the D.C. fire department. Mr. Johnson said 53 hydrants in the city were not working at the beginning of this week.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said yesterday he expects the agency to ensure that hydrants in the District are operational.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin also said his department has “no responsibility, no equipment [and] no resources” to maintain fire hydrants.

“The administration believes every fire hydrant should work, and we will not be satisfied until they do,” Mr. Fenty said.

• Kristen Chick contributed to this report.

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