Last month’s threatened water shutoff in Prince George’s County put the spotlight on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. The utility, which serves nearly 2 million Marylanders, is grappling with miles of large concrete pipes that are prone to bursting. We talk with General Manager and CEO Jerry Johnson about how they keep the water flowing and manage an aging underground infrastructure.

Guests

  • Jerry Johnson General Manager, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission

Transcript

  • 12:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. From keeping our lawns green to keeping us hydrated, the importance of water can not be understated, but the system of pipes and pumps that brings water from the source to our homes and businesses is often taking for granted. It's usually only when something goes wrong that we think about the hidden infrastructure beneath our feet.

  • 12:07:19

    MR. KOJO NNAMDILast month, narrowly averted water shut off in Prince George's County which sent thousands scrambling for bottled water in the middle of the scorching Maryland summer brought scrutiny to the concrete water mains the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission maintains. When pipes burst, it can be dangerous and inconvenient, but the WSSC has technology on its side when it comes to preventing catastrophes.

  • 12:07:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to explain how one of the country's largest utilities gets water to nearly two million Marylanders is Jerry Johnson. He is the general manager and CEO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. That's the water and sewer utility serving most of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland. He joins us in studio. Jerry Johnson, welcome.

  • 12:08:02

    MR. JERRY JOHNSONThank you so much for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:08:04

    NNAMDIYou're more than welcome to join us. You too can join this conversation. We welcome your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you concerned about the state of suburban Maryland's water mains and of water mains and other hidden infrastructure more broadly? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. On July 16th, Jerry Johnson, you announced that water would be shut off for 100,000 customers in Prince George's County, but on the 17th, we found out that the crisis had been averted. Can you walk us through the leadup to that initial announcements and then the finding the fix?

  • 12:08:46

    JOHNSONAbsolutely. And thanks for the opportunity to make you and the public aware of just what happened. As you know, Kojo, I've been on your show before...

  • 12:08:57

    NNAMDIYep.

  • 12:08:57

    JOHNSON...and when we were here before, we talked about an emerging technology and something that we were using to detect problems with certain types of pipes in the WSSC system of which we have about 300-and-some miles. And this is called PCCP pipe or precast concrete cylinder pipe, and what we have done over the last several years spending literally tens of millions of dollars of our ratepayers' money is installed a fiber-optic cable in those pipes after having tested them and gotten the baseline for their condition, and that fiber-optic cable detects wire breaks in those pipes.

  • 12:09:45

    JOHNSONNow, if you think of the pipe being a concrete pipe with the steel cylinder inside of it and wrapped around it looking like a slinky is this piece of wire that I know our listeners can't see but I'll share it with you and that wire then provides the strength for that pipe, if you would. Now, this detection device that we have installed in the pipe will let us know if any of those wires break. And if we hear a certain number of those wires break over a certain period of time, then we know that we probably have a problem.

  • 12:10:23

    JOHNSONSuch was the case with this 54-inch water main. We had begun on Thursday of the week before. I think the 16th was on a Monday. We began to hear a series of breaks in the pipe, and we monitored those very carefully, along with our contractor, and determined through GPS technology where these were occurring and identified 37 of those in a very short period of time. So we knew that failure of that pipe was imminent.

  • 12:10:55

    JOHNSONThat is I think great news for us because we're able to predict that that would happen. However, the pipe was located in a wooded area in Prince George's County, and we had to build a road to get to it. We had to do a number of other activities to pinpoint exactly where this impending break was. And we then projected the amount of time that it would take us to get it repaired, looked at how much water we could store in the system to provide to our customers and thus predicted that we would probably have a large swath of the county out of water for three to five days.

  • 12:11:40

    NNAMDIAnd then a miracle happened. Well, not exactly, and then after you had indicated that water would be shut off in the county and people in residential homes and apartment buildings and even hotels prepared for that shut off of several days, the next day we were told that was not going to happen. What was the fix? What happened? What was the apparent miracle?

  • 12:12:06

    JOHNSONWell, first, I'd like to thank our customers for their responsiveness to our water restrictions. And it was apparent through monitoring the system that they were in fact storing water because of the use levels that that we were seeing. And we wanted to make sure that they had as much warning as possible. It doesn't make sense to spend literally tens of millions of customers' dollars to have an early warning system and be able to have actionable intelligence and then not move on it.

  • 12:12:42

    JOHNSONSo I think that we did do the right thing in advising people and getting them prepared for what we thought would happen. We did not believe that there was a way to move water around that water main break and get it into the system from another direction.

  • 12:12:57

    NNAMDIHow confident were you that the mechanics would be able to fix the faulty valve?

  • 12:13:03

    JOHNSONWe had absolutely no confidence that that would be able to happen. This is the first time that that's ever happened with the system. We knew that the line was extremely badly or the valve was extremely badly corroded and was not in good shape. And there were several other manipulations that had to occur with the water system as well. We operate a system that's about 5,400 miles, if you would, of mains, of water mains of varying size in order for us to deliver it to your home.

  • 12:13:41

    JOHNSONAnd on a continuing basis, we are manipulating that system, regulating pressures, shifting water from one zone into another to ensure that things are operating properly, responding to water main breaks of which we get about 1,700 a year, to make sure that the system is doing what it needs to do. So all the time whenever there's an emergency, we are constantly looking to see if there's something else that we might be able to do to make this work.

  • 12:14:09

    JOHNSONWe just have a couple of committed, absolutely dedicated employees who got into a 20-foot deep pit and were willing to work with some handcrafted tools and some other devices and finally made this thing work.

  • 12:14:26

    NNAMDIThat, it's my understanding, came as a bit of a surprise to you that they were able to do this, but it also seems that they were able to do it in part because of the experience they had and because of simple individual initiative and talent.

  • 12:14:45

    JOHNSONThat's precisely what happened. One of the gentlemen was a former automobile mechanic, and he likened the part to a part on an automobile. For those of you who are enthusiasts, he likened it to a rear-end and thought that he could get there with the right tools, some of which were handmade, then he could possibly make this thing work. But, Kojo, you know, even after having done the 400 turns on this valve, which took a considerable amount of time, we were not sure that the valve was in the right position, even though we had turned it, is it closed, or is it not closed?

  • 12:15:27

    JOHNSONAnd only the way we could really understand and know that was to watch and monitor the system over a period of time to determine what was happening with it.

  • 12:15:38

    NNAMDIOur guess is Jerry Johnson. He is the general manager and CEO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves most of the Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland. If you'd like to join the conversation, if you have questions or comments for Jerry Johnson, give us a call. Do you think the public should have been told about the potential fix during the Prince George's pipeline crisis last month?

  • 12:15:59

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. How often do you think about the vast network of infrastructure below our feet? You can also send us email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Of course, there are people who question your decision to go ahead with the shutoff even as it turned out even when it was not really necessary. As you reflect on that decision, would you do it all over again?

  • 12:16:27

    JOHNSONI unequivocally would say that I would make those same decisions over again. As I said earlier, it makes no sense to spend the millions or tens of millions of dollars to have actionable intelligence and then not move on it. So those days of warning did provide our customers with an opportunity to readjust a number of things in their lives. I recognize that doing without water is a very, very difficult situation, especially when hours grow into days, but we had no choice but to go in and shut the line down in order to make the repairs.

  • 12:17:04

    NNAMDIRecent Washington Post article reports that Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has over 350 miles of concrete water mains that are prone to breaking more than any other place besides Detroit. What makes these pipes so fragile?

  • 12:17:23

    JOHNSONIt was -- the pipes are fragile because of the manufacturing process that they went through a number of years ago. And I would say that we would not paint all of those pipes with the same brush. There are some that are -- that have been in the ground for -- substantially longer, some that are much smaller than the large, very large diameter mains that we're talking about. But remember, I just described that wire, that slinky that goes around them.

  • 12:17:51

    JOHNSONIn some cases, that wire was stretched beyond its tolerance when it was -- when the pipe was manufactured. In some cases, the pipe may have been handled differently that caused a crack in the pipe and water get -- got to those wires and corroded them. So embrittlement of the wire and the strength of the wire has a great deal to do with those pipes and their fragility. Now, when we have gone in to inspect them, however, we have found somewhere around two percent of the inspected pipe that needed to be replaced.

  • 12:18:30

    JOHNSONSo the number of lengths of pipes and these are about 16 feet long and the amount of work that has to be done to either repair or replace them seems to be limited, but it is a fragile enough pipe that we do need to go in and do these inspections on a regular basis.

  • 12:18:47

    NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones. Please don your headphones so we can talk with Alan who is in Arlington, Va. Alan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:56

    ALANYes. Hi. And I may have just missed this but I was on the phone with your producer. I'm wondering if the pipe after you up -- were able to uncover it and either repair or replace it was in fact need of repair. And I guess the real question is how effective was your early warning?

  • 12:19:11

    JOHNSONWell, I believe that the early warning system was extremely effective and probably prevented us from having just a blowout of that main and sudden loss of water to those same 100,000 people that we were predicting would be out of water for several days. The pipe was in need of repair. We did identify the area of corroded wire that had broken in the pipe and believe that we did the proper thing by going in and removing that section of pipe and putting a new one in place.

  • 12:19:42

    NNAMDIHe also asked the question about whether -- Alan, you can ask the rest of the question yourself.

  • 12:19:46

    ALANYeah, that was really -- that was the question. Was the investment of the early warning system worth it, and it kind of apparently was. So that's great.

  • 12:19:51

    NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much. You talked about the wire that you have with you. But talk about other kinds of technology you used to monitor these pipes and how that has changed. It's my understanding that there's something that's known as a smart ball.

  • 12:20:04

    JOHNSONYes. And I've bought another little device. It's about the size of a tennis ball.

  • 12:20:08

    NNAMDIAh, smart ball, yes.

  • 12:20:10

    JOHNSONAnd that technology is part of the inspection regime that we utilize when we go in to look at these pipes. Before the pipes are dewatered -- and we have to take all the water out of these massive pipes for long sections in order to do -- complete the inspection. But before we do that, we will take this device that's called a smart ball, and it will go through the pipe and it detects any seepage or leaks or areas in the pipe where water may be escaping.

  • 12:20:42

    JOHNSONAnd we know then that we have a -- typically a joint or some other issue that needs to be addressed inside the pipe as we're doing the inspection. It sends back a signal so we know precisely where this defect was found. And we're able to go in using GPS and other technology to find that precise spot and then go in and address it as we're doing the inspection.

  • 12:21:08

    NNAMDIGiven the problems of the recent pipe and the expertise that saved you from having to do the shutoff, how important is it that you not become too reliant on technology?

  • 12:21:19

    JOHNSONOh, I think that it's critical. There's nothing that replaces the expertise and the knowledge that's gained by our ladies and gentlemen who are working in the field every day, looking at these pipes and examining them. Before we had this technology, the guys and the ladies used to go in with a hammer and determine the stability of the pipe by a certain sound. They know an awful lot about the system and how it works, and that's very critical to us.

  • 12:21:50

    JOHNSONBut in this particular case, you know, when you start looking at valves in the system, we have some 78,000 valves that are installed in the system in a manner that allows us to isolate part of the system or to shut water off to -- going to one area and shift it to another, depending on what needs are. And I think that that's the area that we'll be focusing a good bit of our energy and effort on now to ensure that all of those facilities are in good working order.

  • 12:22:22

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. But if you've got questions about how water gets from the source to your faucet, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or send email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:25

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Jerry Johnson. He is the general manager and CEO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, WSSC. It's the water and sewer utility serving most of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland. Replacing all of the problematic water mains would cost nearly $3 billion, it's my understanding, money that the WSSC doesn't have. What's being done to replace pipes with the funds you do have?

  • 12:24:51

    JOHNSONWell, right now, our focus is primarily on the replacement of small-diameter water mains. Those are water mains that are from -- generally around four to 16 -- 30 inches. And we have a pretty aggressive program to do that. Last year, as a matter of fact, we replaced over 50-some miles of a smaller diameter main, and we will continue to do that and should reach a rate of about 55 miles per year of replacement. With respect to the large-diameter mains and the ones that we've been focusing on today that have been so problematic...

  • 12:25:31

    NNAMDIThirty-six inches or more.

  • 12:25:33

    JOHNSONThirty-six inches and larger that are made of PCCP so we have to segregate those from the others. There's about 350 miles of those. Trying to replace those would be an incredibly expensive undertaking and because we're not in a position, our major transmission mains, so you have to have a certain number of those in a certain area in service all the time. So you would not -- it's not like going in to do a wholesale replacement.

  • 12:26:05

    JOHNSONThe other thing that's happened over time since those mains were installed is that, you know, they were installed in places where, at one point, it was an open field. And we're able to go through that. An open field now is housing and its businesses. There are other utilities in the same utility corridor that we're in. And you got gas and electric and cable and others that are there. And it makes it difficult to even find the space to be able to put these in so that they would be able to provide the service in the direction and location that we would need them.

  • 12:26:42

    JOHNSONSo we believe that replacement is not really a very practical solution. However, if the private industry continues with the research that we understand is being undertaken now, we're looking for something that would be a structural fix that we could install inside of the pipe. And that kind of fix, we believe, would be the solution. And until that is developed and comes along, then we think that the most appropriate thing for us to do is to continue this very aggressive inspection and monitoring program so that we have some intelligence on that what's happening within the pipe.

  • 12:27:22

    JOHNSONAnd I would say that WSSC is probably the leader -- not probably. We are the leader in the country in terms of this use of this technology and the monitoring of these particular pipes.

  • 12:27:35

    NNAMDIGot questions for Jerry Johnson? Call us at 800-433-8850. Are you concerned about the state of suburban Maryland's water mains and of water mains and other hidden infrastructure more broadly? What are your questions? 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. We got an email from Victor, who says -- or who asks, "How about replacing those mechanical valves with electromechanical, automatically controlled valves?"

  • 12:28:06

    JOHNSONWell, one, I think that the cost of doing that becomes prohibitive. The valve is an example that these two gentlemen diligently went in and worked on and operated. If you were to stand it on its end, it would probably be just a tad above seven feet tall. And if you have to do an excavation for one of those valves to replace it, we're talking about something well in excess of $1 million, $1.5 dollars to just go in and replace it. So it's not -- I don't know that it's a real practical solution.

  • 12:28:42

    JOHNSONNow, installing some additional device on the valve that is electromechanical for the valve that's already in the ground may be a practical solution, and that's something that we would certainly look at as we go about trying to improve the valving system that exist in the system.

  • 12:29:02

    NNAMDIYou mentioned space earlier. Development in Gaithersburg is set to be built on top of two water mains. Developers are not allowed to build within 25 feet of the pipes, but WSSC has recommended that new construction be set back 80 feet. What went into that recommendation?

  • 12:29:20

    JOHNSONWell, there was a study that was undertaken by the engineering staff at WSSC who took a long hard look at what had happened in other pipe failures of this type and came up with that particular recommendation. There is a study group that has been assembled that is looking at the -- what we call the pipe design manual to determine whether a setback greater than the 25 feet that's currently being used should be addressed or whether there ought to be some other mitigating approaches to dealing with that particular scenario.

  • 12:30:05

    JOHNSONThat group has been meeting on a regular basis and will have a series of recommendations that would be available to the commissioners, hopefully, by the end of this year or first part of next year.

  • 12:30:16

    NNAMDIAccording to The Washington Post, there are over 1,700 homes, businesses, schools and other buildings within this 80 feet area. Should they be concerned?

  • 12:30:26

    JOHNSONWell, that's an issue that this study group is looking at. And what we say to them now is that we are doing the monitoring and evaluation of these pipes on a very aggressive and continuing basis in order for us to have a detection system in place so that if there is a problem that occurs within the pipe, we will know about that and be able to address it very quickly.

  • 12:30:51

    NNAMDIGot an email from John in Washington, D.C., who asks, "How does this region's water infrastructure compare to other U.S. Metro areas? What's the biggest challenge currently facing our water infrastructure?"

  • 12:31:03

    JOHNSONThat is an excellent question, and I really do appreciate that, John. It provides me an opportunity to make people aware that Sen. Ben Cardin visited us last week with the same concern. And we do have failing infrastructure on a national basis. This is not something that you need to -- the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission or to the region. It is something that we are experiencing in every major area of the country.

  • 12:31:36

    JOHNSONWe have put a great deal of emphasis on looking at and examining bridges, roadways, railroads, the electrical grid and other forms of infrastructure around the country but have not put a great deal of emphasis on the water infrastructure, which is out of sight and out of mind. But at least now through persons like the senator, we are getting some national dialogue. And when infrastructure...

  • 12:32:04

    NNAMDIBecause I was wondering -- allow me to interrupt because in the context of Sen. Ben Cardin visiting, how difficult is it for you to sell the importance of improving this unseen substructure because we can more easily see things like bridges and roadways when they need repair?

  • 12:32:20

    JOHNSONAnd, you know, the national engineering society has indicated that America's water infrastructure is in worse shape than its bridges, and did a comparison of the length of the infrastructure compared to the length of bridges in the country. And there's really -- literally not a comparison. But I think the first thing that we have to do is to inject water and waste water infrastructure into this national dialogue that's occurring around infrastructure, generally. We tend to be the ones that are left out or we're kind of the tail on the dog.

  • 12:32:59

    NNAMDIOut of sight, out of mind.

  • 12:33:00

    JOHNSONAbsolutely. And so that is the first and most critical point that we get that introduced into that dialogue, and we're thought about and we're looked at in the same manner as airport, runways and bridges and roads and other infrastructure that's out here.

  • 12:33:15

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here now is Bill in Rockville, Md. Hi, Bill.

  • 12:33:22

    BILLHi, Kojo. I have a couple of questions. One question I had was overall cost, and estimate of what it would cost to update the infrastructure, the water -- drinking water and waste water distribution and treatment systems within the area. And the other is the loss of, like, how much drinking water is lost in the distribution system just going through? What percentage is lost to it? And also, same thing for -- should we be worried about the sewer system leaking into the drinking water system? Those kind of issues thinking of contaminating it.

  • 12:34:02

    NNAMDIYou had three questions there. (laugh) Let me have Jerry Johnson respond to each one.

  • 12:34:05

    JOHNSONOK. Let me start with the -- with water loss. There are -- we have to do on annual basis a report to the state on the amount of loss or unaccounted for water. Now, water is used for a variety of different purposes that's not sold. As an example, water for fire fighting, we have water main breaks. We lose water. There's backwash water that's used in the treatment process in a variety of other things.

  • 12:34:36

    JOHNSONOur number stands around 17 percent. The goal standard is around between nine and 12, so we have a ways to go in terms of looking at the water loss, and some of that maybe in meter loss and other elements of the system. So we are working to do that, and we have a leak detection program and a water loss prevention program that we have implemented that we go through a number of steps on an annual basis to try to get that number down.

  • 12:35:10

    JOHNSONWith respect to cross contamination, I know that that's a question that frequently gets ask. But we think that there's very little chance of cross contamination between the sewage lines and the water system. The water supply system is made up of a series of pressured pipes and it moves water through the system very separately and in different areas than the waste water lines, which typically are operated by gravity and not under pressure except in certain circumstances based on topography. So the -- there's very little chance of that occurring in the system as it's presently structured.

  • 12:35:55

    NNAMDIAnd you were talking earlier about how your planning repair of the infrastructure. I guess what Bill wants to know is the overall cost to, as he put it, update the infrastructure. But updating the infrastructure, it seems to me, is an ongoing process.

  • 12:36:10

    JOHNSONUpdating the infrastructure is an ongoing process. Think about us more as a manufacturing process or manufacturing facility, where we are a demand response kind of -- and we're a demand response organization. So our facilities operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they operate whenever an individual might want to use them. So we have to go in constantly and update and repair and replace facilities. It is a -- it is an ongoing effort.

  • 12:36:42

    JOHNSONWe have put in place now and asset management program that takes a look at the facilities that we will need to be replacing over an extended period of time and how much it's going to take to get those done. That, I guess, in a nutshell is it. But our cost -- because we only receive money from our ratepayers -- our cost for doing this is pretty expensive. And the fastest-growing portion of our budget is the capital budget. Those dollars that are used to repair, replace this infrastructure.

  • 12:37:18

    JOHNSONAnd then there are other demands on the infrastructure as well. When you have things like the Chesapeake Bay and the efforts that are being made to approve the water quality of the Bay, and as you know in Maryland, there is a special tax that's been set aside. And we get revenue from that tax to make a series of improvements to our waste water treatments plants to reduce nitrogen in the discharge that we have back to the receiving waters that ultimately go to the Chesapeake Bay.

  • 12:37:49

    JOHNSONSo there are a whole series of things that are needed and required, not the least of which is a federal consent decree that we're currently working under to make certain repairs to the waste water system. Those repairs are a result of deferred maintenance, in many cases, where there had not been any rate adjustments for a number of years. And maintenance tends to be the first thing that gets reduced and eliminated, and we're trying to catch up from that as well.

  • 12:38:19

    NNAMDIBill, thank you for your call. On to Elaine in Harpers Ferry, West Va. Elaine, your turn. Hi, Elaine. Are you there? Elaine, I'll put on hold so she can come back to the phone and go Bashir (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Bashir, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:38:36

    BASHIRThank you, Kojo, for taking my call. And I'm calling this -- for another comment. Really, I doubt the effectiveness and the efficiency of the new technology Mr. (word?) talking about because I have case proved me that this type of technology is not accurate 100 percent. We have an embassy building at D.C. We pay something below $100 a month. And suddenly, just -- the rate jump in to over 500 next month, and then I contested on the bill and I went to their office and they asked me to hire somebody, a professional to verify if there is any problem in the system. I hired somebody.

  • 12:39:25

    BASHIRHe proved that there is no defect, no nothing, and then I went back. They said no. Our technology transmits the information directly to us, and this is a bill you have to pay. Next month also, the same bill or more than the first one, then I asked for hearing, and they scheduled me hearing. After two consecutive hearings, they said you have to pay over $2,000 for a building that (unintelligible) in a process of renovation and...

  • 12:40:00

    NNAMDISo you're point, Bashir, is that you think their technology is dysfunctional or...

  • 12:40:07

    BASHIRNo. I can't say dysfunctional but that it's not accurate because it's impossible to pay...

  • 12:40:13

    NNAMDII don't -- I know that -- I know that Jerry Johnson cannot speak to the specific technology that is on the embassy building with which you are associated but I do know that there are people who have questions about the accuracy of what their meters tell them.

  • 12:40:29

    JOHNSONWell, I think the gentleman is speaking of automated meter reading system located in the District of Columbia. Perhaps, 4 1/2 years ago I could have answered that question for you.

  • 12:40:41

    NNAMDIWhen he was head of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, a position you held for 12 years, if I'm not...

  • 12:40:46

    JOHNSONYes, that's correct.

  • 12:40:47

    NNAMDIUntil 2009. But speaking of automatic meter readers, Debra in Hyattsville, Md. has a question about that. Debra, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

  • 12:40:57

    DEBRAYes, how are you doing today? I wanted to find out when will WSSC have the automatic meter readers for the customers in the Prince George's and Montgomery County area?

  • 12:41:09

    NNAMDIThere you go.

  • 12:41:10

    JOHNSONWell, thank you so much for that question, Debra. We actually have a number of automated meter reading devices installed but they're primarily committed to our larger commercial customers in cases where we have to go do multiple reads on a single site and that sort of thing and they're not presently offered for our customers, except, that we can now do touchpad reads which are the -- I guess a technology that's a little behind the automated meter reading system.

  • 12:41:44

    JOHNSONOne of the things that we have to do in terms of upgrading our technology, which is very critical for us to provide service and meet the expectations of our customers, is that we have to install a new customer billing information system and trying to do that system in a automated meter reading system at the same time is a very, very difficult undertaking that's wrought with many opportunities for failure.

  • 12:42:10

    JOHNSONSo we've made the decision that we will first do the customer billing information system which is the information gathering and analytics part of what would happen. And then we'll come back into automated meter reading.

  • 12:42:25

    NNAMDIWhich would...

  • 12:42:25

    JOHNSONAnd I would encourage you, if I may, Kojo...

  • 12:42:28

    NNAMDISure.

  • 12:42:28

    JOHNSON...just one more point, to take a look at our website and on the website is the information technology strategic plan which is a very readable document and that will give you a better sense of the timing for when we'll be introducing some of the new technologies that will have a direct impact on many of our customers.

  • 12:42:48

    NNAMDIDebra, thank you very much for your call.

  • 12:42:50

    DEBRAThank you.

  • 12:42:51

    NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, I do have a question by way of email for you on your billing systems but we'll wait until we come back. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850. If you have questions about how water gets from the source to your faucet or maybe what you do to conserve water. Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:45:06

    NNAMDIOur guest is Jerry Johnson. He is general manager and CEO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. The WSSC is the water and sewer utility serving most of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland. We got an email question from Randy in Garrett Park that you may have already answered about your billing system.

  • 12:45:25

    NNAMDIRandy says, "WSSC's rate structure is designed with the laudable goal of encouraging water conversation, however, the 16-tier sliding scale system it uses, where the rate for the entire bill is based on the last gallon used, is unusual in the industry. I understand there's a bi-county working group that will be reviewing WSSC's rate structure. Will WSSC still be advocating the use of the current sliding scale system as opposed to the incremental increasing block system or some other structure?"

  • 12:45:56

    JOHNSONWell, my first point to that writer is that that's a very excellent question and I'm shocked at the knowledge that's possessed by people of the billing structuring system because it was right on point. We did, in fact, establish something called a bi-county infrastructure working group some time ago. And that group has been working very diligently. I came up with their first set of recommendations almost a year ago that we are beginning to implement.

  • 12:46:26

    JOHNSONOne of those recommendations was that we began to do longer term debt, take our debt out to 30 years so that it more appropriately matches the life of the asset. That will bring us tens of millions of dollars, if not more, that will lower the trajectory of the rate increases that we have been projecting over time. It also recommended the establishment of an affordability program for our customers who have some difficulty paying the bill because of income and age characteristics.

  • 12:47:00

    JOHNSONAnd it also recommended that we do a rate study. That rate study is slated to be completed this month, as a matter of fact. And I have not seen any of the preliminary results that came from that but that rate study is on track to be completed some time the end of this month and then will be considered.

  • 12:47:21

    NNAMDIYou have said that water conservation is kind of a double-edged sword for utility such as yours. How do you balance the need to maintain the water supply with the need for revving it?

  • 12:47:32

    JOHNSONWell, the only way that we can do that is to make adjustments in the rate or to do some of the creative things that we have undertaken to save money. We have -- on the energy front, we have done about 28 percent of our power is now coming from wind power. We have off-peak purchasing that's done so that the systems are filled at night when it's less expensive. We've purchased more efficient pumps. We're using some solar power around the organization and we're considering anaerobic digestion which will generate heat and power.

  • 12:48:10

    JOHNSONThose are some of the things that we try to do on the cost-saving side in addition to just being a more efficiently-run organization to try to keep those things down. But obviously, when our only source of revenue is still the ratepayers, then rate increases are the other thing that we look at. We tend to look at those as the last course of action after we have looked at all of the areas where we might be able to affect savings within the system because we think that that's very important.

  • 12:48:41

    JOHNSONBut when you talk about conservation and much of the conservation that we're experiencing today is not necessarily conscious conversation. A lot of it is being done involuntarily. It's because of the new washers that are made today and the amount of water that they use. It's because of more efficient dishwashers. It's because of low-flow showerheads. It's because of lower capacity toilets and other water-using devices that are installed in homes today and in businesses that have substantially reduced the volume of water that we use.

  • 12:49:19

    JOHNSONAnd our large institutional users work very closely with us on water audits and other aspects of savings or potential savings to get their cost down also. But if the unit cost of producing the water remains about the same or if we're unable to reduce that unit cost, which we're making the great strives and efforts to do and we've think we've met with some success, then there has to be some adjustment on the other side, which is the cost of that product.

  • 12:49:49

    NNAMDILouise is Fairfax, Va., has an idea for you. Louise, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:49:55

    LOUISEThank you, Kojo. My idea is that since the Southwest and the West don't have enough water and the Colorado River is drying up among other things, why don't you sell water to them? Run pipelines out West and -- to Texas and other areas, and that would give you a big budget for redoing the infrastructure here.

  • 12:50:16

    NNAMDIJerry Johnson.

  • 12:50:18

    JOHNSONThat's quite a creative thought. (laugh) Not sure, I had never thought of that. There are some Environmental Protection Agency laws against interbasin or that -- not I won't say against, but that regulate interbasin transfers and water moving from one area to the next that would probably be the first hurdle that one would have to overcome.

  • 12:50:46

    JOHNSONAnd then I would imagine that it would generate a good bit of political debate, given the fact that we are monitoring very closely climate change and the impact of climate change and it's impact on the water resources that we have available to us. And even though we are a water-rich community today, we have to be very particular about our planning and the approaches that we take to ensure that this community is provided with adequate supply of water well into the future. So the planning that we do locally is 50-year planning as we look at the needs for this region and...

  • 12:51:24

    NNAMDILouise, thank you very much for your call. I don't know if you've answered Bill's question in Silver Spring, Md. But Bill will speak for himself. Bill.

  • 12:51:33

    BILLHi. Good morning.

  • 12:51:34

    JOHNSONGood morning.

  • 12:51:35

    BILLOr afternoon. Yeah. Actually, a dovetail really nicely because my question is what is WSSC doing considering that most infrastructure projects deal with 50 to 100-year time life -- lifetimes to deal with climate change, as well as population growth and the attendant fluctuations with energy production, et cetera.

  • 12:51:56

    NNAMDIAs you have mentioned, you're clearly creeping an issue -- keeping an eye on the issue of climate change. How does that affect what you do?

  • 12:52:04

    JOHNSONWell, climate change, we believe, will -- may have some effect on water supplies and the way that we utilize water here in this region. And for that reason, we have -- we're a part of a water-use cooperative that's made up of ourselves, Fairfax County. We're extending now to Loudon County, to --Washington, D.C., is a part of that also. And we continuously monitor the water supply between ourselves and how it's utilize. And so we're looking at things like major storage facilities.

  • 12:52:46

    JOHNSONCounties are looking at the possibility of buying a quarry as a method for storing several billions of gallons of water to protect ourselves in the event that there are droughts. Many people don't know that we have a couple of dams upstream on the Potomac River that are specifically in place and designed to augment flow in the Potomac River during low-flow conditions.

  • 12:53:14

    JOHNSONAnd those are operated by the core of engineers but are monitored and managed by the cooperative that we're apart of. So water use in the region is not a function of a single user or a single individual jurisdiction, but rather the need for us to look at the supply and resources that surround us and be able to monitor and manage those appropriately.

  • 12:53:41

    NNAMDIBill, thank you for your call. On to Hasan on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. Hasan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:48

    HASANThank you very much for taking my call. Mr. Johnson, you started to touch on the topic that I'm interested in, regarding groundwater and how the WSSC's infrastructure interacts or influences groundwater. Does it exacerbate or inhibit transfer of contaminants or pollutants that come from the ground surface that eventually make their way to Chesapeake Bay and other surface waters? And if you guys are on top of that or it's part of what you do, what sort of monitoring systems to do you have to check out the groundwater?

  • 12:54:30

    JOHNSONWell, we are not a -- thank you for your question. We are not a groundwater user in our jurisdiction. We are blessed to have plentiful supply of surface water. So our main efforts are geared towards protection from overland runoff and other sources into that surface water more so than the groundwater. I think most of the groundwater activities are undertaken either by the Maryland Department of Environment or the Maryland Health Department.

  • 12:55:06

    NNAMDIWhere is your water currently coming from?

  • 12:55:09

    JOHNSONOur -- in WSSC's service area, we have two sources of water. One is the Potomac River that we share with several other jurisdictions. They were part of that cooperative that I spoke about earlier. And we operate a plant there in Potomac, Md., to supply most of Montgomery County and a large portion of Southern Prince George's County. And with the completion of a major water tunnel at the end of this year or the first part of next year, we will have a more robust supply going over to Prince George's County.

  • 12:55:45

    JOHNSONThe other source is the Patuxent River. And from the Patuxent River we operate our Patuxent Water Treatment Plant. And that's fed by the Patuxent through two reservoirs, the Triadelphia and Rocky Gorge Reservoirs, both which are in very, very large watershed area. That we only control about 5,000 acres in and we've been working very closely with the surrounding jurisdictions to ensure protection of that source water.

  • 12:56:18

    NNAMDIThere've been a few recent incidents in the area with thieves and scammers posing as utility workers. What can your customers do to ensure that people coming to their doors, claiming to work for WSSC, actually do?

  • 12:56:32

    JOHNSONFirst thing you do is don't open your door. I would demand to see a photo ID card. Every WSSC employee has one. I would also look to see if there's a WSSC vehicle, which are distinctly blue in color and typically have the WSSC logo on the side of them. If you have questions, you can call our customer service office to ask them for -- whether a person is supposed to be at your residence. And that number is 301-206-4002. And just ask the person at the other end of the line, and they should be able to tell you whether a person should be at your door.

  • 12:57:21

    NNAMDIThe majority of WSSC business is in the field -- is conducted outside of homes. Is that correct? In a field?

  • 12:57:29

    JOHNSONThe field work -- yes, it is.

  • 12:57:33

    NNAMDIWSSC employees, it's my understanding, never conduct financial transactions in the field.

  • 12:57:39

    JOHNSONAbsolutely not. We do no collections. We have no business doing that.

  • 12:57:43

    NNAMDIWell, I mentioned before joining WSSC, you were the general manager of D.C.'s Water and Sewer Authority. How is this job working out for you in the 30 seconds we have left?

  • 12:57:52

    JOHNSONIt's working out quite well. Thank you, Kojo. There are just an incredible number of extraordinary and committed employees who ensure that we deliver good quality service to our customers on a daily basis. And I think that that's what makes the organization work. Our employees are our most important asset.

  • 12:58:11

    NNAMDIJerry Johnson is the general manage and CEO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. That's the water and sewer utility that serves most of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland. Jerry Johnson, thanks for dropping by.

  • 12:58:22

    JOHNSONThank you so much for having me.

  • 12:58:24

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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