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Fairfax Water turns 50!

We thought it would be interesting to share some of our history with you. This is a four-part series with one part presented each quarter through our 50th year.

Part 1: 1957-1967

Prior to the creation in 1957 of the Fairfax County Water Authority (now known as Fairfax Water), Fairfax County was supplied water through many small, mostly private water systems, and a limited number of public systems. There was no standardization between systems and each system maintained its own rate schedule and level of service.

In order to improve service reliability, establish equitable rates, and provide effective fire protection throughout Fairfax County, the Board of Supervisors created Fairfax Water in September 1957 for the purpose of “acquiring, constructing, operating and maintaining an integrated water system for supplying and distributing water.”

Under the Virginia Water and Waste Authority Act, the Fairfax Water Board is empowered to set water rates and issue revenue bonds to operate the water system.

One of Fairfax Water’s first tasks was to hire an Engineer-Director to oversee day-to-day operations. James J. Corbalis Jr. was selected to head the organization. He had 17 years of professional engineering experience, including serving as Fairfax County Sanitary Engineer.

The acquisition of water systems began in 1959 with the purchase of the Annandale Water Company. Over the next eight years, Fairfax Water would acquire an additional 17 systems and began to build a comprehensive water-supply system.

By the end of 1967, Fairfax Water had 832 miles of mains, 3,354 fire hydrants, and 54,000 metered accounts serving more than 425,000 people. Revenues were $2.7 million in 1967 and full-time employees numbered 143.

Part 2: 1967-1982

Created for the purpose of “acquiring, constructing, operating and maintaining an integrated water system for supplying and distributing water,” Fairfax Water had, by 1967, accomplished its primary goal of integrating several disparate water systems.

With this important groundwork done, the focus shifted to maintaining a reliable water supply and distributing safe, clean water to our customers.

Fairfax Water’s sole surface-water source in 1967 was the Occoquan Reservoir, located on the southern border of Fairfax County. With an estimated capacity of seven billion gallons, it was apparent that additional water sources and production facilities would be needed to meet demand. In addition, the Occoquan faced increasing water-quality concerns from point and non-point sources of pollution. In 1971, the State Water Control Board approved the Occoquan Policy, which laid the groundwork for protecting our primary drinking water supply.

In 1972, Fairfax Water suffered its worst disaster with the arrival of Hurricane Agnes. After nearly 16 inches of rain in 36 hours, the Occoquan water treatment facilities were flooded. Storage tanks were depleted and system pressure was lost. The supply line between the reservoir and the treatment plant was severely damaged.

Almost 35 hours after a total water-production shutdown, limited water service was restored to Fairfax County. Full service was restored about eight days later. This was accomplished by a coordinated effort between various federal and local resources. Full repairs to damaged structures took another four years to complete.

In 1973, new water-treatment facilities were placed into operation, providing an additional 24 million gallons per day of capacity and bringing the total daily water-production capacity to 76 million gallons. To augment water-supply storage, the height of the dam at Occoquan was raised two feet in the late 1970s, bringing the reservoir capacity to 8.3 billion gallons.

Even with these improvements, additional supplies and treatment facilities were needed to meet the ever-growing demand for water. In response, the James J. Corbalis water-treatment facilities were built and began operation in 1982 using water from the Potomac River. The Corbalis Plant was formally dedicated on June 25, 1982, and was designed to treat up to 50 million gallons of water per day.

Along with other major water suppliers in the Washington Metropolitan Area, Fairfax Water participated in a regional study of the Potomac River. Recognizing the benefits of cooperation, the three water suppliers (Fairfax Water, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and the Washington Aqueduct), agreed to the Water Supply Coordination Agreement of 1982, with a goal of coordinating operations and meeting the long-term water supply needs of the region.

By the end of 1982, Fairfax Water had more than 1,800 miles of mains, more than 10,300 fire hydrants and nearly 126,000 metered accounts serving more than 650,000 people. Revenues were $27 million and full-time employees numbered 289.

Part 3: 1983-1994

On June 28, 1985, after 27 years of service as Fairfax Water’s first engineer-director, James J. Corbalis, Jr., retired. In July of 1985, the Board of Directors voted to change the name of the Potomac Water Treatment Plant to the "James J. Corbalis, Jr., Water Treatment Plant." It was the least they could do to honor a man who worked tirelessly for the people of Northern Virginia.

Fred P. Griffith, the first deputy director of Fairfax Water, was appointed to succeed Mr.Corbalis as engineer-director.

The 1980s was a period of exponential growth for Fairfax County. Many farms and fields became subdivisions filled with new homes. Applications for new water service ballooned to as high as 7,500 new connections per year. During this time, Fairfax Water continued to bolster system capacity and reliability through new transmission lines and upgrading of storage and pumping facilities.

In 1991, Fred Griffith retired and Floyd F. Eunpu, then the deputy director of Fairfax Water, was appointed engineer-director. In 1993, he was succeeded by Charlie C. Crowder, Jr.

Fairfax Water's commitment and focus became obvious on March 28, 1993, when emergency operations commenced to combat a ruptured oil pipeline. Much of this oil flowed into Sugarland Run, a tributary of the Potomac River above Fairfax Water's raw water intake.

The spill forced an emergency shutdown of the Corbalis treatment plant. Fairfax Water quickly lost production capability at a plant that normally provided 50 percent of the potable water to a population of more than a million people. Fortunately, Fairfax Water’s almost unique ability to draw and distribute water from two different sources prevented a total crisis.

Within hours, water restrictions were announced and emergency personnel were deployed to monitor water quality and provide additional support in the production and distribution of the water. Interconnection agreements with other water companies were exercised and production capabilities were maximized at our Occoquan facilities.
Water pumps and valves were re-configured to reverse water flow through the distribution system. Instead of water flowing out of the Corbalis treatment plant, water produced at the Occoquan treatment facilities was routed through the Corbalis distribution system. This action enabled Fairfax Water to continue service in areas that would have had service disrupted due to the spill.

For 17 days, emergency operations prevailed until the threat to the water system passed.

Barely nine months later, another disaster struck with unusually frigid temperatures from January 15 through January 23, 1994. In eight days, employees serviced 17,500 customer calls, thawed 7,000 frozen water meters, repaired 54 main breaks, and worked 11,500 hours of overtime to provide continuous water service to the customer base.

By the end of 1994, Fairfax Water had more than 2,700 miles of water mains, more than 17,300 fire hydrants and more than 197,300 meters. Revenues were $87 million and full-time employees numbered 394.

Part 4: 1997-2007

This period begins with an application to the State of Maryland for a building permit to construct an off-shore intake on the Potomac River. A key tenet of water treatment is to start with the best source-water possible. Over the years, Fairfax Water studied the water in the Potomac River and found that water closer to the center of the river contains less sediment most of time. In an agreement dating back to 1785, Maryland has jurisdiction over the Potomac River to the low-water mark on the Virginia shoreline. So, Fairfax Water needed to obtain a building permit from Maryland to build a new intake. After Maryland denied Fairfax Water’s permit, the Commonwealth of Virginia became involved in the case, citing the need to protect the right of Virginia to access such a vital resource. The case ultimately was heard before the United States Supreme Court (Original 129, Virginia v. Maryland) in the spring of 2003. In December 2003 the Court handed down a ruling in favor of Virginia, and Fairfax Water ultimately built the off-shore intake. Having two intakes on the Potomac does not mean Fairfax Water can draw twice as much water from the river. Having two intakes means that Fairfax Water can now operate its intakes to the best advantage of its customers.

The New Millennium began with several significant events in Fairfax Water's history. In 2000 the James J. Corbalis, Jr. water treatment plant became the first water treatment plant in Virginia, and one of the few in the nation, to use ozone to treat the water. Also in 2000, Fairfax Water was assigned a triple-A bond rating. At the time, Fairfax Water was the only independent public water agency in the United States to have such a designation. At about the same time, construction began on the new Frederick P. Griffith, Jr. water treatment plant. The plant was constructed to utilize the latest available treatment technologies and began operations in May of 2006.

During this period several events occurred nationally that brought safety and security to the forefront of our thinking. Through Y2K, all of our systems were checked and upgraded as needed to ensure reliable operations after the new-century date change. Then, in 2001, the terrorist attacks further highlighted our need to enhance security and system reliability. In September of 2003, Hurricane Isabel hit Virginia and knocked out power to 80% of Northern Virginia. With all of these events in mind, Fairfax Water has begun a comprehensive system reliability project to protect our system from future vulnerabilities. The project includes additional storage, as well as back-up power for our major facilities.

The story of Fairfax Water and its mission may best be illustrated by then-Chairman Morin's 1997 remarks about Fairfax Water’s "satisfying record demands for water, developing advanced treatment methods and facilities, providing excellence in customer service, and maintaining the exemplary financial management that secures our commitment to the people we serve."

We have a proud and rich history and hope you have enjoyed learning a bit more about your water source. Fairfax Water is proud of its past and dedicated to providing its customers with excellent service in the future!