Water-main break delivers multiple lessons for Arlington officials

Workers tackle a major water-main break that occurred Nov. 8, 2019, along Chain Bridge Road in Arlington. (Arlington County government)

The massive Nov. 8 water-main break underneath Chain Bridge Road taught Arlington public-works officials a number of lessons. Among them: Some county residents are up and at ’em in the wee hours of the morning.

The county government received its first call complaining of no water at 2:59 a.m., a mere three minutes after the rupture of the 36-inch, 75-year-old pipe.

That call, the first of a deluge, came from the 1200 block of North Lincoln Street, three miles from the epicenter of the problem.

“There are a lot of people up at 3 in the morning,” said Mike Collins, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Services, in a Nov. 17 post-mortem report to County Board members.

At the time of the break, the pipe had been pumping water at a pressure of 135 pounds per square inch. The impact of the rupture was “instantaneous and catastrophic,” Collins said.

“There is no video that can do this justice – it’s awe-inspiring,” he said. “It’s an earthquake; the entire ground vibrates.”

At the time of the incident, the county government’s water-command center, located at the Arlington Trades Center, was staffed by an overnight crew of two operators, who simultaneously had to try and identify the problem while fielding the first batch of calls from the public.

Collins said the first response crews were on scene before 4 a.m. to triage the problem. Four major valves had to be shut in “a complicated and deliberate operation” to stanch the flow, he said.

“If you’re not doing it carefully and gently, you can create ancillary breaks,” Collins told board members.

The work to complete the shutdown took about three hours. Water pressure was impacted for much of Friday in different portions of the county and in areas of the District of Columbia, and a boil-water advisory was in effect for two days. Work to repair Chain Bridge Road also took several days.

Both Collins and County Manager Mark Schwartz praised staff.

“These amazing employees responded with extraordinary competence,” Collins said.

More than 60 percent of Arlington’s water mains are a half-century old or older. The one that broke on Nov. 8 is large, but not the largest – water mains in the 500-mile county system range from 1 inch to 48 inches in diameter.

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