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No city can function properly without clean drinking water.
On this week’s episode of Leaders and Legends in Government, Aileen Black spoke with Tom Jacobus, the general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, servicing the District of Columbia and parts of Northern Virginia. The aqueduct has been in place since 1853, and still operates with the original legacy of having a gravity-based system. He said using this simple system saves hundreds of thousands of dollars in pumping costs each year.
Jacobus said the overall model of the organization is to stay safe, reliable and cost-effective. Water treatment is still simple: Take particles out of the water, pass that water through filters and add disinfectant. And as instruments become more precise, the regulations have become stricter in order to promote public health and safety.
“That was the emphasis: Getting water to the people that was relatively clean, compared to what had been in the river and was under pressure over the years … further treatment, further pressurization [and] expansion of the system … it’s a job that keeps on going on and on, even though the population is not growing and our consumption of the water is shrinking,” he said. “What we’re focused on now is the safety and the reliability of the water that we send to them.”
He said his team makes sure to alert the public when the water, which comes from the Potomac River, isn’t safe to drink or use. In fact, his team along with their partners keep a limited supply of water back, about 24 to 36 hours worth, should an incident occur — like an oil spill. But the team is working to expand that backup.
“We’re looking for the opportunity to have an off-Potomac source of water that would be unaffected by an accident,” he said. “This could be of great value to our region … and we’ve got some active plans … but we’re looking for maybe a 14-day supply of water in a reservoir that is not part of the Potomac River system.”
This would give the aqueduct and utilities flexibility to avoid the river while other authorities are cleaning up after an incident.
On this episode, Jacobus also discusses his position as general manager of almost 140 people, gives further details on water treatment and testing, outlines the history of the aqueduct and explains exactly what happens when the water quality isn’t up to par.