Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Earthquake! and Water Rights

Yesterday, a small (4.5 on the Richter scale) earthquake hit Virginia. Although the epicenter was down near Richmond, some people in my office claimed they felt it, and there were local reports of windows rattling and things falling off shelves in some parts of the region. One person in my office, a half hour after the quake passed, said she thought she'd felt something, but just thought it was one of "excited jumping things." Apparently, I've been known to jump out of my chair and to run out of my office, shaking the Mid-Atlantic in the process.

In other regional news, the Supreme Court ruled that Virginia does have a right to steal water [Washington Post | ruling | Richmond Times-Dispatch] from the center of the Potomac. Under the royal charter that carved out the Maryland colony way back in 1632, the southern shore of the Potomac River was designated as the southern boundary of Maryland. When the District of Columbia was carved from Maryland and Virginia, it got control of the Potomac where it ran through the 10 square miles, but when Virginia retook Arlington and part of Alexandria from the District, it's only got back what it gave, leaving the river in the hands of D.C. From its source in the Allegany Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia (and West Virginia) end where their shores touch the Potomac. (Chris Whong has an interesting site covering colonial era disputes of Maryland's borders.)

For decades, Virginia has been allowed to tap Maryland's water from an intake near the Virginia shoreline, however with all the people farms that have cropped up throughout Northern Virginia, the small streams that fed into the Potomac from Virginia have been damaged by all that construction. As these streams silt up, the Potomac is getting increasing levels of dirt and debris, as well as losing some of these small tributaries altogether, which makes that near-shore intake less effective. Virginia got the wise idea that it would be able to get cleaner water if it moved the intake into the middle of the river (far from the silt and crap it's been pumping into the Potomac).

Well, Maryland, which has been working to implement "smart growth" policies that try to limit sprawl and the environmental problems it can cause (such as silting up streams and decreasing water quality throughout the region). So it is no surprise that Maryland objected to the Virginia plan to tap the cleaner central waters of the Potomac. Sadly, the courts have now ruled that Virginia's right to provide its overdeveloped people farms with water that it has yet to ruin overrules Maryland's right to try to preserve the Potomac.

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