Staff Editorial: Water main break highlights aging infrastructure

The 30-inch-wide water main under MacArthur Boulevard NW suffered a gash between 15 to 16 feet wide, prompting emergency repairs. (Brian Kapur/The Current/May 2017)

About 150 years ago, likely just before the start of the U.S. Civil War, workers installed a 30-inch-wide cast-iron water main in Northwest Washington, underneath what is now MacArthur Boulevard.

Earlier this month, workers were back at the site — only this time, they were making emergency repairs. On May 17, the pipe suffered a 15- to 16-foot gash, and its contents burst up from MacArthur, damaging the street and flooding nearby basements.

The pipe’s failure cut off water supplies to nearby residents, caused property damage and closed a major roadway. We doubt many neighbors thought frequently about their water main before then, but they certainly have since.

The MacArthur water main break is an important reminder that aging infrastructure lurks beneath the surface of our city. According to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the failed water main isn’t even the city’s oldest — another one dates all the way back to 1850. The District’s network of gas lines also includes plenty of equipment that’s past its prime.

It’s costly and disruptive to bring old infrastructure up to current standards. Such work is noisy, and sometimes requires excavating roadways or private yards. Meanwhile, when a utility makes such investments, it frequently increases customers’ bills. All of these issues are sources of griping from many residents.

But underground trouble spots will stay in the background only for so long. And if they aren’t addressed proactively, the repair work suffers from a lack of advance planning or careful scheduling.

We urge decision-makers to recognize the importance of utility work, and to provide appropriate funding that can minimize the risk of future failures. And we encourage the community to be understanding of the downsides associated with pipe replacements or repairs.

All stakeholders benefit from proactive infrastructure investments. If the impacts of such projects make you doubt that idea, remember what happened on MacArthur Boulevard.