Over the last few years, elected officials, citizen activists, county and state officials and environmental groups have waged a losing battle to stop a Northern Virginia water company from damaging the Potomac River through construction of a “mid-river intake pipe.”
The fight has involved regulatory efforts, legislative efforts and a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ongoing construction on the Virginia shores, visible from Riley’s Lock in Potomac, has served notice that Maryland may have little control over Virginia’s future use of the river.
But now a Maryland water authority plans a similar incursion into the Potomac River.
Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water and sewer service in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, wants to install a “mid-river” intake into the Potomac River to provide water to its River Road filtration plant in Potomac.
“This summer, we’re going to start a feasibility study,” said Chuck Brown, spokesman for WSSC.
WSSC has been authorized to spend $798,000 on the study, but is still in the very early stages. “We haven’t even brought a contractor on board to do the study,” Brown said.
WSSC may run into some opposition early on.
“I think it’s the wrong idea and the wrong time,” said Del. Jean Cryor (R-15).
WSSC uses the same justification that the Fairfax County Water Authority did — that there is sediment in the water close to shore, and the water in the middle of the river is better water.
The study will focus on putting a “Submerged Channel Intake” into the Potomac. The need for such a pipe came about from a recent “source water assessment” that found that water obtained through the current pipe, which runs along the shoreline near the Watts Branch, is subject to “sudden negative changes in the quality of the water, particularly after storms,” Brown said. The negative impact, caused by runoff from the Watts branch, typically takes the form of increased sediment, Brown said. “We want to provide a cleaner, safer, more stable water supply.”
Environmental groups think the sediment is what should be addressed instead of a new pipe.
“The federal safe drinking water act has some principles that include doing pollution prevention upstream,” said Neal Fitzpatrick of the Audubon Naturalist Society. “We know how to deal with stormwater runoff. Why can’t we apply that to the Watts Branch?” Fitzpatrick is a Potomac resident.
According to Brown, cleaning up Watts branch would not have an immediate impact. “It would take decades for the Watts Branch to respond to the most aggressive management practices,” Brown said. Brown cited a study by the Center for Watershed Protection which projected a only a 15 percent decrease in solids by 2020 if the most aggressive management techniques were used. “That’s compared with a 100 percent reduction if we move the intake pipe further out,” Brown said
Virginia’s construction of a mid-river pipe caused years of litigation and the construction of a mud road — practically a dam — into the river.
“I hope they [WSSC] don’t want to do this like Virginia,” said Ken Hartman, spokesman for councilman Howard Denis (R-1).
According to Brown, it is too early in the process to discuss construction plans, but he could not rule out that possibility. “You have to look at all the options,” Brown said.
WSSC will be holding a meeting with a variety of groups, such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Naturalist Society, along with some others, on Feb. 18. “They had shown a lot of interest in this issue when it was across the river. We wanted to bring them in early and hear their concerns,” Brown said.
After that meeting, the issue will be brought to the County Council’s Transportation and Environment committee on Feb. 27.
Preliminary plans are for a pipe that would extend 400 to 500 feet into the river from the WSSC facility on River Road. The facility is about a mile west of Swain’s Lock.
“We are not seeking additional water removal,” Brown said. The “very preliminary” cost estimate is $15 million for construction of the pipe, according to Brown. He added that it is expected to save WSSC $800,000 a year in treatment costs. According to Brown, the study should be completed about one year after its start. He said that WSSC plans to have several public meetings while the study ongoing.
“After that we’ll take it to the County Councils [Montgomery and Prince George’s] and take it from there,” Brown said.