Local Commentary

Editorial: Water War

Having examined both sides of the issue in depth, we conclude that the City of Falls Church had no choice but to sue Fairfax County over the county’s dramatic shift in water service policy last month. It will be up to the courts to decide the winner and loser in this case, but if Falls Church were to lose, then the City, its residents, taxpayers and users of its water system, including many who are located in Fairfax County, would be dealt a severe blow, the loss of many millions in revenues over the coming years, and possibly worse.

We agree with the assessment of Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner that the sudden move by the Fairfax Water Authority to solicit the use of its services in areas historically covered by the Falls Church Water System constitutes a hostile act. It violates an agreement between Fairfax and Falls Church made in 1959, and even though that formal agreement lapsed in 1989, it has remained in practice without exception since, involving cordiality and cooperation. The vast majority of the City of Falls Church’s water customers resides in Fairfax County and always has. Gardner contends that the City has maintained excellent service and water pressure to its customers there. While Falls Church’s water rates are higher than those offered by the county’s system, this is nothing new and is a derivative of obligations the City system has to its provider, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On the other hand, the City’s water hook-up fee costs are a fraction of the county’s.

As Gardner also pointed out, this is not just a case of the county seeking to be competitive with the City. It is, as she pointed out, not a level playing field, with the county holding all the cards, “owning the entire process.” We cannot help but construe this move by the county as a taking, as a grab, whether for political or fiscal reasons, or both. More generally, it portends a severe deterioration of friendly and cooperative relations between the tiny City, with its 11,000 residents, and the mighty county, with over a million.

But many Fairfax County residents will also be hurt. Namely, if the County gets its way and grabs millions of dollars-worth of business away from the Falls Church water system, then that will force the Falls Church system to charge still more for its water to remain solvent. That will directly, negatively impact on the more than 100,000 customers of the Falls Church system located in Fairfax County.

These customers should have every reason to howl over the new Fairfax County policy, every much as the City of Falls Church officials who acted on behalf of all its water system customers, including all those in the county, with dispatch to seek relief in the courts.

The fact is that Fairfax County may be impatient with having so much of its territory served by the City of Falls Church, but it can’t just wave its hand and make that reality go away.