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.”
But opponents of the intake pipe lost a round in their fight this week, when a bill to ban the project died in the Maryland General Assembly.
Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, withdrew her bill Tuesday after seeing that a House committee voted last week to kill a companion bill sponsored by Del. Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery.
“There’s no sense in using up valuable time with the committee because we have so many bills,” said Ruben. “We’ll bring it back next year, we’ll educate them.”
Cryor said she would be back, vowing to file the bill “again and again.” She said the ban is needed to keep the Fairfax County Water Authority from changing “the view of the river forever.”
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 estimated 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 were also watching for other reasons. Cryor said many utility companies feared her bill would have kept them from building any intakes along the Potomac shore, or maintaining the ones that are already there.
Cryor said an amended version of her bill made it clear that it would not apply to water intakes along the river shoreline. She said she would work in the interim to make that point with skittish businesses.
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 was glad to see that the legislation banning the intake did not pass, saying that it would have worked against good water quality for his customers.
But Cryor vowed that the fight is not over.
“There’s no question that … this will be one of the first bills pre-filed next November,” she said.