WSSC History

The WSSC - A Thumbnail History

WSSC logo

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.

William Curtis

WSSC 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 WSSC 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).

WSSC 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":

  • 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).
  • first WSSC vehicle
    In July of 1918, 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.

Water Filtration

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, WSSC built a one million gallon rapid sand filtration plant in Hyattsville in 1920. Also during 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 WSSC responded with the construction of its Brighton Dam-Triadelphia Reservoir facilities on the Patuxent River. Brighton Dam was completed in 1943. 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.

Patuxent Plant

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 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, 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.

The 70s brought on a new era of WSSC leadership and two additional “firsts”: Johanna S. Norris was appointed as the first woman Commissioner (1971) and Lawrence L. Brooks, Sr. became the first African American Commissioner (1972).

Further expanding its resources, WSSC completed construction of the Little Seneca Creek Dam and Reservoir in northwestern Montgomery County in 1985. The Reservoir is available to supplement flows in the Potomac River during dry periods and serves as a recreational resource along with WSSC's other two reservoirs. (Jennings Randolph Reservoir holds an additional 13 billion gallons of water shared with Fairfax Water and the Washington Aqueduct.)

Another growth indicator of WSSC's water service requirements since its inception - when average water production was ~300,000 gallons a day - 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.

Wastewater Treatment

While the water system was being developed, progress was also being made on the regional integration of the sewage system. The first sewer constructed by WSSC was installed in 1919 in Riverdale, Prince George's County. The early backbone of the Commission's sewage 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 WSSC was able to complete connecting lines.

During the 1940s, 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 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. Operated by DC Water, the system handles as much as an additional 169 MGD under a cost sharing agreement with the WSSC, treating on average approximately 65 percent of WSSC’s wastewater annually.

It was not until the late 1950s and the 1960s that 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, WSSC designed and built the Parkway WWTP (opened in 1959). The 1960s saw the opening of the Piscataway Plant in southwestern Prince George's County and the Western Branch Plant in eastern Prince George's County. In the 1970s, WSSC developed the interim Seneca Treatment Plant in Montgomery County and two smaller facilities with capacities under 1 MGD -- the Horsepen WWTP near Bowie (no longer in service) and the Damascus Plant in Upper Montgomery County.

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 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 WSSC although operational/capital costs were shared by the region. In 1999, that facility was closed and decommissioned.

 

In recent years, all plants receiving sewage from 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, WSSC has taken on other responsibilities as well, such as the enforcement of plumbing and gas fitting 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. WSSC also performed solid waste collection and disposal operations until the mid-1960s, after which they were assumed by the two Counties.

WSSC By numbers
Do tie

WSSC is an organization that has created history and embraced it since 1918. In 1993, the utility once again made history by hiring the first African American General Manager, Cortez A. White, who served from 1993 – 1999.

WSSC Today

WSSC, which began with limited resources, has grown with a service area of approximately 1,000 square miles, housing a population of nearly 1.8 million residents. With a mission to provide safe and reliable water, life’s most precious resource, and return clean water to our environment, all in an ethical, sustainable, and financially responsible manner – it takes a variety of expertise and skills to ensure that it happens, every day. In line with its growth, WSSC’s responsibility has grown to fulfill that mission. As a result, environmental stewardship is a key component of our work as well as energy efficiency. Technology and innovation is critical to both those efforts and to best serve our customers. Learn more.

WSSC is now governed by six Commissioners with equal representation from each county. The Commission has developed its systems and become a national leader in the water and wastewater industry as well as engineering and energy sectors. Since 1918, WSSC has never had a drinking water violation and continues to exceed federal guidelines.

WSSC received permission from the State legislature to implement a new Customer Assistance Program (CAP) to provide a credit for the Ready-To-Serve Charge. Eligibility is based upon participation in the state’s Office of Home Energy Program. CAP became effective on July 1, 2015.

In 2016, WSSC achieved another historical first: the first female general manager and CEO, Carla A. Reid. Read more.


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