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WSSC Standing By Its Handling Of Averted Water Shortage

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Residents in Prince George's County are happy to have water this week, but are still questioning the response to a possible water outage.
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Residents in Prince George's County are happy to have water this week, but are still questioning the response to a possible water outage.

Some of the many questions regarding this week's averted water shortage in Prince George's County are being answered.

Working on a water valve above ground is one thing. But Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission facility technician Brad Destelhorst was working on a much bigger one—and in much different conditions—when he repaired a valve that averted the water shortage that would have affected close to 300,000 people in Prince George's County earlier this week.

"I was about 20 feet under the ground, standing in about three feet of water. Operating an electric grinder standing in the water. Gotta do what you gotta do to get it done," he says of the repairs.

Destelhorst says he had some replacement parts that were in rough condition, and he wouldn't quit working on them until they were in shape the fix the valve. His work paid off—the valve was fixed, allowing water to flow to the portions of the county that were faced with water outages due to a broken 54-inch main.

But while many residents were happy to hear the news, questions are still being asked about how WSSC handled the situation—especially what they knew and when they knew it.

The WSSC didn't announce that valve had been fixed until Wednesday afternoon. General Manager Jerry Johnson says they knew of the potential fix over the weekend, but didn't think it was going to work until Wednesday morning.

"Once we saw the valve, and it went out with this machine that attempted to operate the valve on several occasions. It would not operate. We took that off the table as a viable option. It was not a viable option. So, we had to go with what we had," he said.

What they had was a day of warnings of a shortage that could last most of the week, and calls for residents to stockpile as much water as they could.

But when Destelhorst and others successfully fixed the valve, all that stockpiled water wasn't needed, leaving some angry residents and county leaders along with frustrated business owners that had closed in anticipated a shortage that didn't happen.

Johnson isn't swayed, though, saying that if he had it to do all over again, he'd handle it the same way.

"I think that people would have probably changed their habits and not done the conservation that needed to be done," Johnson says. "I emphasize that we had no assurance that we were going to be successful with what we were trying to do. That did not happen until Wednesday morning."

Tuesday's warnings of a multi-day shortage led to businesses shutting down and residents snapping up large amounts of bottled water at stores. But in the end, they didn't need it. Johnson still says the warnings were necessary.

"I think that would have been fairly foolhardy and irresponsible to have told someone to not prepare for this worst case scenario, when we didn't have any information at hand to say to them that we could have the operation up and running," he says.

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