ANNAPOLIS – To residents from the Montgomery side of the river, the Potomac is a treasure that brings “joy to the eye and peace to the soul” — but maybe not for long.
They fear that a Fairfax County, Va., plan to build a water intake pipe in the middle of the river, marked with buoys and flashing lights, will spoil that beauty beyond repair.
“If we allow Virginia access to the middle of this river now, who will be next, and next, and next?” asked Montgomery County resident Elie Pisarra. “Once changed, the river will never recover.”
She was one of about a dozen speakers supporting a bill in the Maryland legislature that would prohibit anyone from drawing water “off shore” of the Potomac.
Del. Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery, said the bill is needed to stop the Fairfax County Water Authority’s plan for a new intake, which would “change the view of the river forever.” Her bill to prohibit off-shore intakes died in committee last week, but a Senate version is slated for a hearing Tuesday.
But Jim Warfield, an official with the Fairfax County Water Authority, said Maryland residents have no reason to get worked up.
The intake would be visible only when the river level is extremely low, he said, and it can even be disguised if Maryland insists.
“We can make the thing look like a big rock,” he said.
“We’ll design it any way they want us to design it,” said Warfield. “We’re very flexible.”
Because Maryland controls the river, the water authority applied to the Maryland Department of the Environment in January 1996 for a permit to build the new intake pipe.
The authority said it needed the new intake because development in the Sugarland Run watershed — on the Fairfax County side of the river — had caused sediment problems near the current intake.
The Department of the Environment denied the permit request in December 1997, saying the project would not “promote wise use of” the Potomac. It also noted that the water authority had only been forced to close its current intake valve for less than two days per year.
But Warfield estimates that the current intake has to be closed about 10 days a year, because leaves and other debris that normally collect along the river’s shores can clog the pipe.
Besides, he said, closures are only one reason the authority wants to build an intake pipe farther out.
“The water is always better in the middle of the river,” said Warfield.
But Fairfax officials have brought the problem on themselves, Cryor said, by allowing too much development in the watershed.
“Instead of cleaning up its shoreline, Fairfax wants to move its intake pipe to the middle of the Potomac,” she said.
Maryland businesses, including the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, are watching the Fairfax case closely to see if they might build their own midriver intakes, said Cryor.
“We will have a situation where we can actually walk down the Potomac River,” she said.
Businesses would still be able to build new intakes along the Potomac shore and maintain existing ones, under an amended version of her bill, Cryor said.
Fairfax has appealed the Department of the Environment’s denial of its permit for the project and is waiting for a hearing date from the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings.
Warfield said he did not know what the authority would do if its appeal fails or if the Maryland Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, should pass.
But Cryor vowed that the fight would not end with this legislative session.
“There’s no question that if we don’t drive it (the bill) through the Senate, this will be one of the first bills pre-filed next November,” she said.