WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ended a centuries-long water dispute between Maryland and Virginia, ruling that Virginia has the right to draw water from the Potomac River without Maryland’s approval.
The court’s 7-2 decision was based on an interpretation of interstate agreements going back as far as 1785. The court concluded that both states have the right to build improvements on the river and withdraw water from it, as long as they do not interfere with one another in the use of the river.
“This is a major victory for the economic development and quality of life in Northern Virginia,” said Carrie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.
The ruling upset officials in Maryland, who noted that numerous rulings going back to 1632 put the river within the boundaries of the state.
“The Potomac belongs to us,” said Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, who tried unsuccessfully in 1998 to block a plan by the Fairfax, Va., County Water Authority to build a water intake pipe in the river.
“I don’t know of any instance where you can go into anybody else’s property . . . without consent,” Ruben said.
The latest case began in 1996 when the Fairfax County authority asked Maryland for permission to build a new water intake structure farther out in the river, after the old intake was clogged by silt. Maryland initially denied approval, sparking a court fight that ultimately led to Tuesday’s ruling.
The majority ruled Tuesday that the “plain language” of two key compacts, from the 18th and 19th centuries, “gave Virginia the sovereign right to use the river beyond the low-water mark.”
“The Supreme Court has ruled,” Cantrell said. “This is the end.”
“It’s been a very interesting history lesson,” she said. “We always believed we had these rights and we ended up in the Supreme Court.”
But in separate dissents, Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy said that Maryland has the right to regulate the river since it owns it, and can therefore impose regulations on Virginia’s use of the water.
“Like Justices Kennedy and Stevens, we felt that Maryland’s historic ownership of the Potomac would result in the state’s victory in this case,” said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., in a prepared statement.
Ruben fears that the court’s decision could lead to irresponsible use of the water. One of the original reasons for denying the permit was that Maryland Department of Environment officials feared that it would allow urban sprawl in Northern Virginia.
“Somebody has to be responsible about the river not running dry,” Ruben said.
But one environmental group that had sided with Maryland in the case said that now that the court has ruled, it is time for both states to share the river equitably.
“There needs to be some mechanism to regulate the Potomac,” said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society. “I don’t think Virginia is going to suck the river dry.”