News & Politics

Metro Was a Nightmare Because DC’s Water Infrastructure Is Terrible

The District's drinking water infrastructure needs $1.6 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

Metro passengers are still working their way out of Tuesday morning’s hellish delays caused by a ruptured water main near Metro Center, which flooded the Silver, Blue, and Orange line tracks for most of rush hour. The burst pipe briefly flooded the tracks, forcing tens of thousands of commuters to seek refuge on the Red Line or shuttle buses.

Today’s commute will go down as one of the one of the worst in recent memory, but not because of anything Metro did. The culprit is a 12-inch, cast-iron pipe laid down in 1953, according to DC Water. Even more incredible is that at 61 years old, the busted pipe is “actually on the young side” for Washington’s water infrastructure, says DC Water spokeswoman Pamela Mooring. The median age of the District’s water system is 79 years old—beyond most pipes’ useful lifespan—while the sewer lines are even older.

Crippled infrastructure isn’t anything specific to DC—the American Water Works Association estimates it will cost $1 trillion to upgrade the entire country’s water systems over the next 25 years—but the systems here are especially critical. The American Society of Civil Engineers diagnosed DC’s drinking-water infrastructure with needing $1.6 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years and the sewer system needing $2.5 billion in fixes.

The District endures about 400 water main breaks a year, with more coming in the winter as pipes react to fluctuating ground temperatures and an excess of cold water, Mooring says.

DC Water is in the early phases of a ten-year, $3.8-billion capital improvement project that includes funding for several projects, including pipe replacement, but fixing the system completely will take much longer than that. Mooring says the utility recently switched from replacing one-third of 1 percent of its water mains every year to a full 1 percent annually, meaning the city will have all-new pipes by the early 22nd century.

“But we were on a 300-year schedule,” she says.

In the more immediate future, Metro has resumed its regular schedule on the Silver, Blue, and Orange lines, but it’ll take DC Water up to 12 hours to fix the busted pipe, causing a closure of 12th Street, Northwest, between E and F streets.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.