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Water Service Issue Spreads

Residents fear development in face of Fairfax Water's offer to install water line to replace wells.

Change is never an easy thing to accomplish, especially when the issue is something as basic as where water comes from.

Fairfax Water is proposing the installation of a water main in the Riverside Manor development in Great Falls, and the potential change is causing quite a commotion among residents and public officials alike.

"The pipes will go on the west side of Walker Road and north of Arnon Chapel Road," said Jean Bailey of Fairfax Water, which owns and operates the current water wells at Riverside Manor, which is among the last remaining areas in Fairfax County to receive well water.

"We intend to lay about 8,300 feet of pipe to serve some 50 homes in Riverside. There would be a greater benefit to the Great Falls area in that this would also provide better fire protection for the entire area," she said.

However, not all those affected by the water change are in favor of the new pipes, basically implying if it's not broke, don't fix it.

"This is great water," said Gene Herbert, a resident of Riverside Manor. "The wells are 900 feet deep and tap into what's called an Artesian well, which is a rock cave underground that's filled with water that filters as it comes through the ground," he said.

The issue of fire service doesn't seem to be a problem he said, citing an incident several years ago where a home had been burning and the Great Falls Fire Station had fought the fire with three 30,000-gallon tanker trucks.

"I asked them if it was a problem to bring in water to use, and they said no, that many places in Great Falls don't have hydrants or public water," he said.

Those in a position to advise for having the water line installed tell residents they're "doing us a favor," Herbert said. "They say putting in the hydrants will make it easier for them to fight fires, and that's debatable."

"Having hydrants saves time, it saves staffing and it helps us be more effective. It's a pretty simple decision for us," said Captain Clyde Pittard of Station 12 in Great Falls.

"When I spoke with people from Chesapeake [road] and the GFCA, I put it like this: We use lights and sirens to save time coming down the road when there's a fire. What you're asking me to do by saying you don't want the water is you're asking me not to turn on my lights and sirens," he said.

There are two central concerns mentioned by Fairfax Water in their argument that the water line would be important for Riverside Manor: fire protection and radon.

"THIS IS THE ONLY PIECE of our system that we own that we don't provide protection for," Bailey said of Riverside Manor. "Plus, the wells are at their capacity, and there are houses in Great Falls that can't hook up to Fairfax water if they wanted to because the well cannot serve any more people."

The radon threat is a trickier topic, as there are currently no widely adopted levels that would determine how much is too much.

"There is proposed regulation but there's no consensus as to how much is too much," she said. "We're trying to be proactive and take care of the problem before it becomes a problem, and there are a couple of ways to address that situation."

The County Health Department has a color-coded map available on its Web site, www.co.fairfax.va.us/service/hd/radon.htm, that provides indications of the radon level in Fairfax County. Overall, the radon threat in the county is amongst the lowest in the state, but until regulations are approved, that doesn't mean much. In addition, the Web site shows that radon levels can vary from house to house in the same neighborhood, as radon comes into the home through water and other substances and the concentrations can vary depending on numerous factors.

"We could drill a new well to see if that lowered the levels, but we believe we'd still have radon issues," Bailey said. "We could try to provide a better water capacity for those residents who depend on the well, but there are times of drought when we ask these folks to restrict themselves because there's a threat that the wells could run dry."

The only option that would eliminate the problems and is economical is the water line, she said.

"The Water Authority is playing the $900,000 to cover the project and it won't cost the residents anything," she said. Currently, the residents are paying $1.05 per 1,000 gallons of water they consume. All other residents, countywide, that have Fairfax water pay $1.40 per 1,000 gallons consumed, Bailey said.

"People who aren't already on our water system, if they wanted to get Fairfax Water, would have to pay to join the system, but there wouldn't be hook-up fees for those already receiving our service," she said.

"The people of Riverside Manor did not approach Fairfax Water to change their situation," said Kathleen Foley, vice president of the Great Falls Citizens' Association.

"CURRENTLY, OUR POSITION is that we're opposed to the water line. We didn't feel everyone was given adequate information to make an informed decision about the water line. Plus, we have the same problems throughout Great Falls as they have in Riverside," she said.

"If the water service was going to be provided to all of Great Falls, we wouldn't be opposed to it," Foley said. "And we're not necessarily opposed to it now, we just feel like it's being pushed on us I'm under the impression that there's nothing we can do to stop this."

Perhaps the biggest feeling of resistance comes from the theory that public water will lead to public sewers, which could be a stepping stone toward greater development in Great Falls, an area proud of its rural characteristics.

"Fairfax Water is an independent authority and they determine where they're going to extend their water service," said Dranesville Supervisor Joan DuBois. "In order to qualify for sewer services, the Board of Supervisors would have to create a sewer-shed, for lack of a better term, to plan on the installation of a sewer in the future but you'd have to change the master plan to accommodate that. Water and sewer have nothing to do with development," she said.

To further stress the unnecessary concern about the county's master plan changing, DuBois said "I don't think there's any public official familiar with Great Falls who would commit such a suicidal act."

"We are not up-zoning Great Falls [to allow for development to happen]," she said. "We are not up-planning Great Falls. We are allowing the development allowed for in the master plan."

"The fear of development is a smokescreen," said Dewey Bond, Dranesville District appointee to Fairfax Water. "Residents shouldn't be concerned about development."

He said he understands that residents have several concerns about the installation of the water line, including environmental concerns he's had himself, but "as I was told, only two trees will have to be cut down."

"We've zoned two areas north of Georgetown Pike [for development] and we won't add more," he said. "The lots are at least two acres and the zoning regulations won't be changed."

All sides insist that no decision has been finalized yet, and a meeting will be held by Fairfax Water at the Great Falls Library on Saturday, Jan. 8, at 10 a.m., to discuss the water line, where it would be installed and any concerns residents have, Kathleen Foley said.

"If the residents of Riverside Manor don't want the water, the ultimate decision will be made by Fairfax Water," Bailey said. "They'll try to take their concerns into consideration to provide the best quality service to our customers."

SOME RESIDENTS STILL don't see a need for the change, however, and say that their concerns have not been addressed.

"The water from the county has to be treated to make it potable because it's from the Potomac River," Herbert said. "The well water we drink is pre-filtered and not much has to be done to it É it's just as good, if not better, than the water in the rest of the county."

An initial polling of residents in Riverside Manor indicated that most people were in favor of the water. Herbert said that survey, completed this past summer, missed many homeowners who were out of town on vacation.

"As people began to come home from their vacations and heard what was going on, they began to wonder what the water authority was up to," he said. That concern led Herbert and two other homeowners to create their own survey, a two-page letter walked door-to-door that would allow homeowners to sign one page if they were in favor of the water line, and another if they were opposed.

"I'm convinced that our poll was done in fairness," he said. "The results of that poll indicated that 63 percent of the residents were opposed to the pipeline, 24 percent were for it and 13 percent did not answer."

The three men took their findings to DuBois, whom Herbert said became "furious"when she saw their information.

"She said we frightened people with talk of development É that we couldn't do anything to stop the water authority from doing what they wanted," he said.

"What I told Mr. Herbert was that the Riverside Citizens' Association had already submitted a poll showing their support of the water line to Fairfax Water, and that I would not submit the survey they did on their own to Fairfax Water because it was their job to get it to them," DuBois said. "I think there's an internal issue within the Citizens' Association and from what I can tell, the water authority is going ahead with the project."

"Our position is that, based on the information we have, the water line is a possible direction to pursue," said Denny Lewis, president of the Riverside Citizens' Association. "We need fire hydrants."

He said that he has heard mixed feelings from his neighbors but the majority seems in favor of the water line.

"From my end of it, it's not an issue of whether it's fair or not [to put the line in], but of whether the government has the right to exercise their authority over our particular neighborhood," he said.

"The concerns of the residents are legitimate and should be raised, and when it's all said and done each resident will make a decision," he said, adding that he's fairly certain that once all information available is presented, another poll of the neighborhood will be administered.