ANNAPOLIS – Maryland and Virginia officials wrangled Tuesday over two bills that would limit what one environmentalist called Virginia’s “ploy to get more water” from the Potomac River to support heavy development.
The legislative face-off in Annapolis came just four days after Virginia went to the Supreme Court in an effort to get Maryland to approve its plan for a new intake that would suck as much as 300 million gallons a day from the river.
Virginia has been fighting Maryland’s Department of the Environment since 1996 for the right to build a 725-foot intake pipe to the middle of the river, where they saw the water is cleaner and more sanitary. The Fairfax County Water Authority claims that its current pipe near the Virginia shore gets muddied from storm-runoff and cannot sustain its growing customer base, currently at 1.2 million.
But opponents in Maryland, which owns the Potomac River, fear Virginia will use the new pipe to feed uncontrolled development in Northern Virginia. “I want to make sure (the water authority) isn’t fueling more development on the Virginia side, which has gotten out of control in recent years,” said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D-Montgomery. Van Hollen and Delegate Jean B. Cryor, R-Montgomery, have filed bills to limit the capacity of any new pipe and require environmental impact studies before FCWA builds it. Both bills were heard in separate House and Senate committee hearings Tuesday. Van Hollen’s bill would limit capacity of the new pipe to 205 million gallons a day, about 100 million gallons short of FCWA’s request. Cryor’s bill would restrict intake to 50 million gallons per day. Fairfax water officials said they currently use about 100 million gallons a day, and cannot handle more than 150 million gallons at their current treatment plant. But the authority plans to eventually increase the capacity of the treatment plant to 300 million gallons a day, and says it will need a pipe to pull that much water from the cleaner mid-Potomac. “It doesn’t make sense to build an intake-pipe unless it’s for the ultimate capacity. Otherwise you will have to dig again,” said Stuart A. Raphael, legal counsel for FCWA, who testified at both the Senate and House hearings.
But environmentalists argue that the new pipe would only temporarily solve water-quality woes caused by over-development in Northern Virginia.
“Just because they shove the pipe out 700 feet” does not guarantee clean water, said Edwin I. Pilchard, a member of Washington-based Canoe Cruisers Association. “(FCWA) is just pushing off the problem to the future,”
The Maryland Department of the Environment said Virginia is exaggerating water-quality problems. The Potomac River basin has not violated any water quality regulations since a 1996 oil spill, said J.L. Hearn, director of the departments’ Water Management Administration. “The pipe isn’t justified,” he said.
Other supporters of the bills said the pipe project should proceed with caution.
“The idea is that we want to ensure the studies get done before the mid- river intake is built,” said Carla Pappalardo, spokeswoman for Clean Water Action. “It’s got to be the way.”
Both bills call for studies to monitor the river’s low-flow levels and water demands for the Washington region and the Potomac River basin.
But the FCWA said Maryland mirrors Virginia’s environmental neglect: Water taken by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in 1996 was almost 30 percent muddier than water taken from the Virginia side, according to by the FCWA.
Lawmakers had few questions on either bill at Tuesday’s hearings.
“It just comes down to who owns the river,” said Sen. Ron Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, during the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing. “Why is Virginia being so obstinate about it? Do they want to turn around 200 years of history?”