WASHINGTON – Virginia officials made good on their threat Friday and took Maryland to the Supreme Court over Maryland’s refusal to let Fairfax County build a new water intake pipe in the Potomac River.
“Virginia has every right to extend the intake to the middle of the Potomac to secure cleaner quality water for the citizens of Northern Virginia,” said David Botkins, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley.
But Maryland lawmakers and environmentalists contend that the real issue is excessive development in Northern Virginia. They say Virginia should not be allowed to support that development by drawing down the Potomac, which lies entirely within Maryland’s borders.
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said Virginia could correct some of the water quality problems by more effectively controlling the sediment that enters the Potomac from tributaries in Fairfax County.
But Virginia officials say the issue is water quality, not quantity.
The dispute began in 1996 when the Fairfax County Water Authority applied for a construction permit from the Maryland Department of Environment to draw water from the middle of the river. Erosion and runoff were muddying the water at the current intake, which is located near the shoreline.
That muddied water is expensive to treat and more likely to be contaminated by parasites, according to the lawsuit. At certain times of the year, grass, leaves and ice also clog the intake.
When no permit was issued, the water authority took its case to a Maryland administrative law judge. But that process has been delayed because the judge’s original ruling was found to be based on the wrong issue, Curran said. He said the issue should be settled by mid-summer this year.
In frustration, the water authority last summer asked Earley to look into the matter.
“We’re really tickled [at] what he’s decided to do,” said James A. Warfield, the water authority’s executive officer.
“Four years is long enough to wait for your state’s assent,” Earley wrote to Curran in November. “More than 1 million Virginians depend on the Potomac River for their water.”
Friday’s filing with the Supreme Court comes just before hearings in Annapolis on House and Senate bills that would make it harder for a water authority to get a construction permit for a water intake pipe in the Potomac. The bills were filed by legislators from Montgomery County, which sits across the river from Fairfax.
Similar bills passed both houses last year but differences between them could not be worked out in the final moments of the legislative session.
“I regard it (the filing) as saber-rattling on the eve of my bill being heard,” said Delegate Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery. “The Supreme Court, I believe in, and they will see this clearly.”
But an official with the water utility that serves Montgomery and Prince George’s counties expressed sympathy for Virginia.
“We have similar concerns for water quality, and we’re looking at the advantages and the feasibility of relocating (the intake) for the very same reasons,” said Charles Murray, director of the operations bureau for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
He said the bills before the General Assembly could hinder those efforts.
WSSC has the same problems as Virginia at its Potomac Water and Filtration Plant in Montgomery County, which has a shoreline intake like Fairfax’s. Data from the treatment plants on opposite shores are the same, Murray said.
Officials on both sides of the border expressed dismay at the impasse.
“The most unfortunate thing about this whole episode is that for 20 years we’ve had a wonderful relationship with Maryland” over shared water, Warfield said.
“We don’t want to hurt Virginians,” Curran said. “Virginia and Maryland have coexisted for 300 years in a wonderful relationship. We have a disagreement.”