06 April 2010

No problems here,—move along (or, Please ignore that giant hole in the ground)

District residents love to complain about the city government. How it's not doing enough, how it's taxing them too much, how it's doing a poor job of providing services, how it's failing to follow through on promises (made one day and seemingly disavowed the next).

I am guilty as charged when it comes to this mindset. When I see a problem, I often wonder how the city could allow such a thing to happen, to fester, to become a bigger problem than it had to be. Of course, city agencies can't be everywhere at once—citizens have to be the eyes on the ground that alert the agencies about problems. Ideally, the city will use that citizen input to fix a problem as soon as is reasonable.

Seeing water coming up out of the middle of the street would qualify as a problem, one would imagine. Last fall, after moving to Trinidad, I noticed water seeping out of the pavement on the 1600 block of Montello Avenue NE. Google Maps' Street View caught the problem occurring before that even, during the summer of 2009:

View Larger Map

A pothole eventually developed here. Buses like the D4 and D8 plowed through it, causing it to grow larger and larger, so the city finally came through and did some repaving work, which appeared to fix the problem. Fast-forward to March 2010, and the pothole came back. A metal plate was placed over that hole, while water continued to come up from the ground below.

Water flowed downhill from the hole in the street, like a spring giving rise to the beginning of a mighty river (not really, but that sounds more appealing, doesn't it?).

The images below show you what it looked like last week. Someone removed the metal plate. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that neighborhood kids didn't pick it up and walk away with it as a prank. Buses and cars continued to drive through the pothole, making it to grow hour-by-hour.

Traffic driving through the hole was splashing water over the roof of the blue car on the right, and gravel sprayed in every direction once tires made contact with the 6-inch deep puddle.


Sometime in the last couple of days, more asphalt was poured into the hole, in what appears to be a pretty half-assed attempt to fix this problem. Clearly, water is still running out from underground, which means the picture below will resemble the picture above in a short period of time.


The neverending pothole.

Now, here's the part of this story where I tell you this is more than just a farce—attempts have been made to really remedy the problem. Instead of just complaining about this on the Internet, I started sending emails to WASA a month ago, alerting them to the presence of water flowing out of a neighborhood street (as well as multiple other water issues in the neighborhood, which I will address in a future post). I even sent pictures of the leak as evidence. A customer service representative told me that crews inspected the area and determined that there were no leaks. Almost incredulously, I replied that something certainly must be leaking—why would there be water actively pouring out of the middle of a city street?

The WASA representative informed me that a second crew would be dispatched to double-check on the leaky street. When I asked what they found, this is what I was told (on March 22):
The work order for 1635 Montello Ave., NE was closed.  After several investigations, checking a water sample in the area, and an inspection from a foreman, they concluded there is not a leak resulting from a break on a main near that address.  We suspect this location is saturated with ground water as we noticed water coming from another elevation when crews excavated the site to ensure no breaks exist.  There was a substantial repair on a valve at Holbrook and Montello Ave. in January.  It is possible that the leaking water from that valve saturated the ground near 1635 Montello Ave., and what you see now is that water draining.  Another possibility is that a home or business in the area is discharging water from a sump pump to dry their grounds.  If you can send me your pictures, I would be happy to pass them along to the foreman for his review.
Since then, I have heard nothing further from WASA. As you can see, some agency has taken the time to "fix" this problem, but clearly this is not done in a way that anyone would define as satisfactory. Perhaps the explanation above is correct—this is simply ground saturation forcing its way to the surface. If so, it appears that Montello Avenue will have a permanent pothole at this location.

On March 11, before the discussion excerpted above, I received this note from Alan Heymann, the director of Public Affairs for WASA, in response to my concerns:
We had a number of problems in the vicinity of Florida and Trinidad Avenues – I seem to recall five breaks in that one area on a single day in January. The median age of a water main in the District of Columbia is 75 years. They break a lot this time of year. Our capital improvement program, which is funded mainly with ratepayer dollars, calls for replacing 1/3 of one percent of our infrastructure each year. We’re working to up that to one percent in the next budget cycle, which means we’ll be completely replacing the water infrastructure every 100 years. It would be great to do it even faster, but the ratepayers are sensitive – with good reason – about increases.
I fully understand that our infrastructure is ancient, and it's going to take a lot of money to properly repair that infrastructure, instead of just committing to patch jobs to fix the most egregious problems. I also know that this has been a very long-running issue in Trinidad, as I've spoken with fellow riders on the D4 and D8 who have said that potholes and sinkholes have opened up on Montello and Trinidad Avenues for decades now.

This particular pothole is going to haunt me until it gets fixed properly. It appears that city agencies are happy with the "fix" at this point (or perhaps this is all they can afford to do—I don't fault WASA for having to move mountains with a molehill budget). Expect to hear more from me about this in the future as I pursue it further.


  1. There are five problems here. One, the water is repeatedly destroying the road surface, requiring DDOT to repair and re-repair it. Two, WASA is allowing the commodity it sells to cover its budget to literally flow down the drain. Three, if water is getting out of a water pipe, other stuff can get in if there is even a momentary drop in pressure. Fourth, WMATA and car owners that must drive down or park on this road are having to deal with added wear and tear as well as potential damage to their vehicles. Fifth, WASA clearly has employees that aren't doing their jobs or don't know how to do their jobs.

  2. Alan Heymann attempted to post this comment earlier today, but for some reason it wouldn't go through, so I'm posting it for him now. I'm excited to see that WASA is still on top of this and looking for a solution.



    Finding the source of this leak has been quite a challenge. As you know, we have been out to the 1600 of Montello Avenue several times.

    We have dug a few test holes, and the water is entering from the south or toward Holbrook Terrace. We will return to the site tomorrow and excavate further south from the pothole all the way to the bottom of the six inch main to see where the water is coming from. We will also schedule a shutdown in this block and adjacent blocks to see if the leak stops when a certain main is shut down.

    I have your email address and will give you an update as soon as I have one.

    Alan Heymann
    Director, Public Affairs
    District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority

  3. What a mess. But also what a great story to illustrate how murky infrastructure issues are. If it is ground water saturation, then it isn't WASA as much as DDOT and DDOE who have to get involved. It might be saturation from the breaks, water being drained out underground somehow, or even a naturally occurring springhead. If it's the last one, then it's not WASA's fault at all. No one has determined the source of the water but it's obvious that it needs time to come out and any road on it will gradually be destroyed. I'm gonna make a crazy leap of logic here, but eventually isn't it the road that the problem and not the water? accommodate the water (can you put a French drain in a street) before you pave over it and hope it will go away.

    Experience has taught that, in the end, water will win.

  4. This is excellent. Good post, good follow up by Director Heymann. I wonder how issues like this work through the various agencies. For instance, if DDOT or WASA has several work orders for a particular location over a period of time, that suggests there's a larger issue with the location. How are issues like that identified? Is there an automated process for identifying repeat work orders or is it up to the crews to take some sort of action? And if an issue is identified, I wonder what sort of an escalation process is triggered. Ah, the fascinating mechanics of organizational operations.

  5. sophiagrrl: I wasn't entirely sure what a French drain was, so I looked it up. Here's a link, for anyone else who's interested. You're right that this might be a natural spring. I still need to get down to the library to look at some old maps and see if they show the natural drainage in the area. Given that the center of Trinidad is basically one of the high points of NE DC, I wouldn't be surprised to see that a stream used to flow down from this point prior to development.

    Kansas Jack: I also wonder about a triggering process. If this is something that the mayor's CapStat program follows, one would think that eventually a flag would be raised. There's obviously little to be gained by doing the same repair over and over again in the space space for the same thing.

  6. As a Trinidad resident, I thank you for taking up this issue. That pothole drives me crazy...

    This summer I plan to investigate the ice cream truck phenomenon in Trinidad. As in, why we need 4-5 different trucks trolling the same few streets and parking for up to an hour--sometimes more--with the music blaring. So suspicious.

  7. Anonymous: I'm sure those trucks do legitimate business. I'm also sure they do other stuff on the side. Would have a hard time proving it, though.


You can be curmudgeonly too, but let's try to be civil and constructive here, ok?