Mark Twain’s reputed quote,“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting,” reflected the politics of the West in the 19th century, where compacts about water availability and usage often were shared between political jurisdictions, corporate interests, and farmers and ranchers. The basis for some of those compacts continues to this day, where record low river flows are affecting tens of millions of people, especially in the American Southwest. The West depends on hydroelectric power (dams) to a far greater degree than in the East, where the majority of electrical generation is coal, gas, and nuclear-powered.
Nonetheless, the DMV region also relies on partnerships to manage and provide clean drinking water to a growing population. A veritable acronym salad includes the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB), the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), the Fairfax County Water Authority (FCWA), and the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority (UOSA), and the Washington Aqueduct, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). These various public organizations and utilities have worked together for decades to assure that local residents, businesses, visitors, and federal government installations have clean, reliable water on demand.
It hasn’t always been that way. Post-World War II, there were multiple small water providers, many relying on groundwater wells as their source. As the area grew, more dependable sources were needed, and the Fairfax County Water Authority was created. Later, Loudoun Water and the Prince William County Service Authority joined the regional partners. The primary water supply is the Potomac River, which provides 78 percent of water to the system, and 100 percent of the water to the District of Columbia and Arlington County, via the Washington Aqueduct. Regional water supply agreements include the Potomac Low-Flow Allocation Agreement (LFAA), which allocates water to the metro area suppliers when flow in the Potomac is insufficient to meet demands. To avoid triggering the LFAA, the Water Supply Coordination Agreement coordinates system operations among the suppliers.
Additionally, a shared reservoir system on the Potomac – Jennings Randolph and Savage in West Virginia, Little Seneca in Maryland, and the Occoquan and Patuxent Reservoirs – provides backup supplies of water. It takes several days for water released from Jennings Randolph to reach the metro area, so water supply forecasts by experts are needed before a release is authorized. The region’s 1999 drought may have been the closest to “fighting” for water. Because each jurisdiction had its own regulations for water use, D.C. and Maryland residents along Western Avenue could watch neighbors watering lawns, while their own landscapes died. Fortunately, a regional drought plan was drawn up by the co-ops with the assistance of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), so that friction shouldn’t happen again. More water storage will be available in the future with the designation of the Steven T. Edgemon Reservoir, which can store billions of gallons of water in a quarry in southern Fairfax County; similar work to find a quarry site in Maryland is ongoing.
Water quantity and water quality are hallmarks of the co-op system, which always is alert to new problems. Most drinking water and wastewater treatment plants use the latest in technology to combat endocrine disruptors, chemical spills, pipeline leaks, etc. A more recent challenge appears to be PFAS and PFOAS, or Poly and Perfluoroalkyl substances, known as “forever” chemicals. PFAS chemicals make pots and pans non-stick, fabrics waterproof, and fire-fighting foam more effective. They also live in the environment forever. Earlier this month, the Environment Protection Agency released for comment its National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for PFAS and related substances. While this is an important step in the right direction, localities will need to pay close attention to the limits of science and technology that utilities struggle to meet, and take costs into account. It is well worth reminding decision-makers that utility ratepayers also are taxpayers, so cost benefit analyses will be crucial to future decisions. Water is a precious resource, shared by all; its protection is up to all of us, too.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.