On the Potomac

Virginia and Maryland are separated by the Potomac River which provides a narrow geographical border. But the philosophical border has always been as wide as any ocean.

How appropriate that the latest flare-up between the Old Dominion and the somewhat Free State centers on a dispute over water rights along the shores of the Potomac.

An arbitrator, appointed by the Supreme Court, ruled this week that Virginia does not have to submit to Maryland’s permit process in order to draw water from the center of the Potomac River. The Fairfax Water Authority had sought in 1996 to move its water-intake system away from the Virginia side of the Potomac closer to midstream. The existing intake was constantly clogged with silt and mud costing the authority more than $1 million a year to fix. Maryland, which has owned the river since its establishment as a colony, refused to grant the request.

It wasn’t that Maryland objected to Virginia using the Potomac to supply residents with water. Maryland (read Gov. Paris Glendening) wanted to send a message to the folks south of the Potomac. In rejecting Fairfax’s request, Maryland officials said they did not want further incursion into the river because of Northern Virginia’s poor record on controlling sprawl.

Maryland may have a point when it comes to poor land use policies in Virginia, but their opinions are just that opinions and it should never have been grounds for turning off the water spigot.

Though Maryland owns the river, a series of agreements, beginning in 1785, acknowledged that residents living along both sides of the Potomac had rights and access to the river. The 1785 agreement was framed by George Washington and allowed both states to fish and build structures on the river including water intake valves.

Maryland eventually granted the permit to Fairfax following a short war of words and legal salvos between the two states. Virginia officials weren’t satisfied and took their neighbor to court saying that Fairfax shouldn’t have been subject to Maryland’s arbitrary permitting process.

Even though Fairfax was eventually given the go-ahead by Maryland, the Virginia Attorney General was correct in pursing the matter all the way to the Supreme Court for a final opinion. The recent arbitrator’s opinion is a victory for Virginia but Maryland is expected to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

Their decision will be final and we’re sure it will not stray too far from the conclusion George Washington came to more than 200 years ago.

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