Water main failure floods MacArthur Boulevard

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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)

Jeff Adkins came home last Wednesday afternoon to find an unusual sight on the basement level of his MacArthur Boulevard building. When he opened the staircase door to head toward his studio apartment, he found more than three inches of standing water.

“It was like a free swimming pool in here,” Adkins told The Current. “They rained on our parade downstairs.”

As he stood outside The Palisade, 4540 MacArthur Blvd. NW, on Monday, Adkins seemed amused by the situation, laughing and joking with a reporter. But last week was no laughing matter — the water breached his home as well, ruining quite a few of his possessions, including rugs and lamps. “Small things, but a lot of things,” he said.

Adkins was one of numerous Foxhall area residents along MacArthur and down nearby Q Street and Clark Place to incur property damage and other inconveniences when a 30-inch-wide water main pipe along MacArthur failed shortly after noon on May 17. DC Water crews spent the rest of the week replacing the broken pipe, which bore a gash between 15 and 16 feet wide, according to DC Water spokesperson Vincent Morris.

Water service was restored to affected residents in the neighborhood later that afternoon. MacArthur remained closed between Reservoir and Foxhall roads NW until Wednesday afternoon — a week after the original incident — with DC Water unable to complete its remaining roadway fixes until this week’s bout of rain cleared out. Morris had said on Tuesday that DC Water and the D.C. Department of Transportation were worried the closure might last until Friday.

According to Morris, only one person has called DC Water since the incident to complain of property damage, but the event had ripple effects throughout the community. In the meantime, questions linger about what caused the pipe to fail — and whether more failures loom in the near future.

DC Water hasn’t yet determined what caused the water main to send what one resident called a “roiling river” of water flowing southeast down MacArthur last week. The pipe dates back to approximately 1860, which means wear-and-tear may have played a role, according to Morris. While he says it’s unlikely that the pipe burst, something may have been rubbing against it, eventually tearing an opening, Morris said.

In addition to unleashing a deluge of water, the incident ripped a sinkhole of sorts in the center of the 4500 block of MacArthur. DC Water spent last Wednesday through Friday isolating the pipe failure, cutting out the broken piece, installing a much newer replacement flown in from Alabama, and covering the exposed area with cement. Now the pavement needs to be leveled and restored.

Thus far, DC Water doesn’t have any evidence that this event foreshadows a spate of similar incidents. Still, Morris doesn’t deny that other old water mains could fail as well. The evidence bears out that assumption — for instance, a smaller-scale failure of a 106-year-old pipe one block north on MacArthur closed the roadway for several hours in February 2016.

The average age for pipes in D.C. is 79 years, Morris said, and the oldest one dates to 1850. The MacArthur main that failed is “not the oldest, but right up there,” he said.

The incident has caused several days of headaches for neighbors like Mary Hardman of 4617 Q St. NW. Hardman rarely ventures down to her cellar and hadn’t yet gone to check for standing water. But as of Friday, a line of yellow caution tape between two poles on the sidewalk near her house was blocking her driveway and nothing else. “You’re probably wondering why I’m trapped,” she said upon opening the door for a Current reporter on Monday morning.

The May 17 water main break on MacArthur Boulevard NW closed the roadway and flooded nearby residences. (Brian Kapur/The Current/May 2017)

Farther from the area directly affected by the pipe, residents have been frustrated at detours for the D5 and D6 Metrobus routes. As of Monday, on the D6 westbound trip to Sibley Memorial Hospital, rather than making a left from Reservoir to Foxhall before turning right on MacArthur, buses were skipping straight from Reservoir to MacArthur.

On the D6 eastbound to Georgetown or Stadium-Armory, buses skipped a quick stint left from MacArthur to Q and then up Foxhall to Reservoir, instead turning left from MacArthur directly onto Reservoir. D5 buses to and from Georgetown also skipped Q Street in both directions.

On the other hand, the water main issues ended up boosting sales for the Palisades Deli, a tiny convenience store on MacArthur just a few buildings north of The Palisade apartments. Business was booming last week when construction crew members took breaks, cashier Young Jee told The Current. But on Monday morning, the rain meant that those customers were few and far between.

Adkins just hopes the problems are resolved swiftly. Baseboards from the basement level of The Palisade now lie in a massive pile behind the building. Several enormous high-power fans sit outside apartments there; some residents took them out of their homes because they were taking up too much space, Adkins said.

He hopes everything will be restored quickly — and not on his dime. “Take care of business where business needs to be taken care of,” Adkins said.

This post was updated to reflect that MacArthur Boulevard reopened on May 24.