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The WSSC - A Thumbnail History

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) was established on May 1, 1918. But the concept of a bi-county water/sewer agency was first suggested in 1912 following a strong complaint from the neighboring District of Columbia about the streams within the Nation's Capital being fouled by waste from Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. 

The Commission was the brainchild of the public health officials and that era's version of "civic activists." However, it took the concentrated and devoted efforts of civic leaders like E. Brooke Lee, an esteemed Montgomery County politician, and T. Howard Duckett, a prominent Prince George's County attorney and entrepreneur, generally recognized as the "founding father" of the WSSC to transform these laudable thoughts into action.
 
One of the people who worked on the original surveys that led to the creation of the Commission was the world-renown engineer, Abel Wolman. Wolman is widely known as the father of modern sanitary engineering. Among his many contributions, perhaps most significant was his development of chlorination - which made possible the adoption of simple, effective methods to curb waterborne diseases (typhoid and cholera, most notably). 

The Commission was "under the gun" to get results from virtually the very day of its inception. On May 15, 1918, the "charter" Commissioners, Messrs. William T.S. Curtis and Emory H. Bogley of Montgomery County and Mr. Duckett, held their first official meeting, resulting in these other WSSC "firsts": 

WSSC "Firsts"
  • Mr. Curtis was elected as the first WSSC Chairman.
  • Mr. Arthur Williams of Kensington was named Secretary/Treasurer and became the first paid employee (at the rate of $50 per month).
  • Mr. Robert B. Morse was appointed as the first Chief Engineer and authorization was given to rent the Commission's initial office space (at $18 per month).
  • In 1971, Johanna S. Norris was appointed as the first woman Commissioner.
  • In 1972, Lawrence L. Brooks, Sr. became the first black Commissioner.
  • In July of 1918, the WSSC sold its first bonds, a $50,000 issue. With the authorization granted to Chief Engineer Morse to "purchase $190 worth of supplies and a new Ford with detachable rims," the Commission was on its way. The WSSC immediately began acquiring existing water and sewerage systems within its service area -- 95 square miles and 30,000 people, a community with an assessed real property value (assessable base) of less than $20 million at the time. 

 

Over the years, small existing community systems, some run by municipalities like Hyattsville and others privately operated by land companies such as those in Chevy Chase and Edgemoor, were acquired and eventually integrated into the WSSC regional system. Among the early acquisitions were the Takoma Park (1919), Mount Rainier and Kensington (1922) and Glen Echo (1926) water systems.

 

Additionally, the WSSC built a one million gallon rapid sand filtration plant in Hyattsville in 1920. Also in this early period, the Commission began to add new sections to the water supply distribution network to serve growing communities like Silver Spring, Hyattsville, and College Park.

 

In the late 1930s, as the population continued to grow, more water was needed and the WSSC responded with the construction of its Brighton Dam-Triadelphia Reservoir facilities on the Patuxent River. Brighton Dam was completed in 1943. The WSSC's truly regional water supply facility, the Patuxent River Filtration Plant, was developed east of Burtonsville, near Laurel in Prince George's County.

 

This new facility also featured the Morse-filter design, and its first stage opened in 1944. Additional stages were added, as needed, to an ultimate capacity of 65 million gallons per day (MGD), reached in the early 1950s. The Patuxent Plant, together with the Triadelphia Lake and the downstream raw-water reservoirs complex, T. Howard Duckett Dam and Reservoir completed in 1952, still operate as key elements of the WSSC's regional supply system.

 

The Patuxent Plant was the Commission's principal supply facility during the last half of the 1940s and in the 1950s when rapid post-World War II suburban growth was taking place. During the 1950s, the Commission pursued the study, design, and construction of what is today the WSSC's principal water supply facility, the Potomac River Filtration Plant in western Montgomery County. When the first 30 MGD stage of the Potomac Plant was opened in 1961, the WSSC was in a position to operate a dual source system, drawing on both the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers. The Potomac Plant was expanded progressively during the 1960s and now has a nominal capacity of 250 MGD with the ability to produce at a rate of 285 MGD for short operational periods.

 

Further expanding its resources, the Commission completed construction of the Little Seneca Creek Dam and Reservoir in northwestern Montgomery County in 1985. The Reservoir, containing 4.25 billion gallons of water, is available to supplement flows in the Potomac River during dry periods and serves as a recreational resource along with the Commission's other two reservoirs. (The Commission also has access to water stored in the 30 billion gallon Jennings Randolph reservior, located further upstream on the Potomac in Bloomington, MD and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)

 

As an indication of the growth of the Commission's water service requirements since 1920, when average water production was a little over 300,000 gallons a day, the WSSC established a one-day distribution record of 267 million gallons (MGD) on July 8, 1988. Today, annual average, daily production in suburban Maryland is 167 MGD. The WSSC's water distribution network has grown, since its inception in 1918, to 5,300 miles of mains with 434,000 customer accounts as of March 2003.

 

While the water system was being developed, progress was also being made on the regional integration of the sewerage system. The first sewer constructed by the WSSC was installed in 1919 in Riverdale, Prince George's County. The early backbone of the Commission's sewerage system was formed by the acquisition of municipal networks in Hyattsville, Takoma Park, Kensington, Mount Rainier, Chevy Chase and Edgemoor. Direct connections, under agreements with the District of Columbia, were made with the Washington system for the Little Falls, Rock Creek, and some other tributary trunk facilities in the 1930s and 1940s as the WSSC was able to complete connecting lines.

 

During the 1940s, the WSSC developed a then-major sewage treatment plant in Bladensburg in Prince George's County to provide pollution control service to Maryland's portion of the bi-county Anacostia Basin. Shortly after the end of World War II, negotiations began with the District of Columbia for the joint, Maryland-D.C. development of the Blue Plains Water Pollution Control Plant, which was designated as the regional facility for both Washington, D.C. and the Maryland suburbs. The cooperative arrangement permitted the abandonment of the WSSC's Bladensburg Plant in the early 1950s.

 

Today, all major trunk sewers in Montgomery County, with the exception of the Great Seneca Sewer Basin, are connected to the regional Blue Plains System, which have a present day capacity of 370 MGD, of which just over 170 MGD has, by agreement, been allocated to the WSSC.

 

It was not until the late 1950s and the 1960s that the WSSC began to develop some major new permanent sewage treatment facilities of its own. These plants were located in Prince George's County to serve areas which were earmarked for growth and were financially/operationally out of reach of the regional Blue Plains Facility Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). In the mid-1950s, the WSSC designed and built the Parkway Wastewater Treatment Plant (opened in 1959) which has a current capacity of about 7.5 MGD. The 1960s saw the opening of the Piscataway Plant in southwestern Prince George's County (now able to treat 30 MGD and the Western Branch Plant in eastern Prince George's County, where the nominal on-line capacity approaches 30 MGD. In the 1970s, the WSSC developed the 5 MGD interim Seneca Treatment Plant in Montgomery County and two lesser facilities with capacities under 1 MGD -- the Horsepen Wastewater Treatment Plant near Bowie (no longer in service) and the Damascus Plant in Upper Montgomery County. The Seneca WWTP is currently completing an expansion to 20 MGD.

 

In the early 1960s, the Blue Plains WWTP went through massive changes to improve the quality of treated wastewater it discharges into the Potomac River. One of the by-products of these changes was massive quantities of solids -- far greater than could be managed at or near the plant. In 1974, a Regional Agreement was signed requiring each major jurisdiction sending flows to the plant to manage its share of the sludge. Montgomery County decided in 1977 to dispose of the County's sludge through composting and the WSSC was directed to design, construct and operate a composting facility. The Montgomery County Regional Composting Facility (MCRCF - more often referred to as Site II) was built on a 116-acre parcel of land east of Route 29 adjacent to the Montgomery Industrial Park. Completed in 1983, it was owned and operated by the WSSC although operational/capital costs were shared by the region. In 1999, that facility was closed and decommissioned. Currently, WSSC land applies biosolids.

 

In recent years, all plants receiving sewage from the WSSC's wastewater collection system have been equipped with some form of advanced treatment. The WSSC service area is generally ahead of the rest of the nation in the development of facilities which have taken a big step (tertiary treatment) beyond the conventional primary-secondary processing of wastewater. Consequently, it produces an exceptionally high quality of effluent (treated wastewater) at all of its plants.

 

In its years of operation, the WSSC has taken on other responsibilities as well, such as the promulgation and enforcement of plumbing and gasfitting regulations (licensing and inspection) in suburban Maryland, and the development and maintenance of storm drainage facilities within its boundaries. In the late 1960s, Montgomery County assumed responsibility for storm drain facilities within its boundaries. Beginning July, 1987 storm drainage functions for Prince George's County were transferred to the County. The WSSC also performed solid waste collection and disposal operations until the mid 1960s, after which they were assumed by the two Counties.

 

In summary, the WSSC, which started with almost no resources more than eight decades ago, has grown with its service area (now 1,000 square miles, housing a population of nearly 1.8 million) to become the 8th largest water and wastewater facility in the United States. The Operating Budget for the fiscal year ended in 2007 was $757.1 million. The WSSC, now governed by six Commissioners with equal representation for each county, has developed its systems to the point where it is a national leader in the water and sewerage industry.

 

For a more comprehensive history of the Commission, please refer to the "History of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission" by Arthur P. Brigham, 1988, revised/updated 1993. 

 

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