- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2001

No gunfire, no dead watermen and no constitutional crisis — by historical standards, the dispute between Maryland and Virginia over a water-intake pipe in the Potomac River is small stuff.
The Potomac River has created a centuries-long divide between the two states, which have taken their most recent spat, like others before it, to the Supreme Court.
The case, in which attorneys are arguing over the meaning of "navigable waters," ironically was born from a poor choice of words.
The whole mess began in 1632 when King Charles I endowed a charter of land what would become Maryland — to Lord Baltimore. The charter defined the southern border as the southern edge of the river, contradicting the usual practice of splitting the river between two territories.
"Careless phrasing would be my estimation of why it happened that way," says Charlie Grymes, who teaches a course on the history of Virginias geography at George Mason University. "At the time the grant was made, I dont think Charles had a clue. They knew as much about our rivers as we know about craters on Mars."
Virginians have been protesting the kings decision ever since.
"Its probably the most litigated body of water in the country," says Curtis Dalpra, spokesman for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, which oversees water quality, use and conservation for the river.
In less-litigious times, anarchy and a fair amount of violence were commonplace.
William Claiborne had established a fur-trading post on Kent Island in 1631 with Virginias blessing. The royal charter, though, redefined Kent Island as part of Maryland, and after several years of resistance, Maryland militia forced him from the island in 1638. Six years later, in 1644, Claiborne led a rebellion that temporarily overthrew the royal governor.
As colonists began to realize the rivers economic potential, other disputes surfaced.
Maryland claimed the river, but Virginia owned the mouth of the Chesapeake and thus controlled taxes on vessels coming in from the sea to Maryland.
The two sides eventually appointed commissioners, who met at Mount Vernon in March 1785. Under the eye of George Washington, they agreed to the Compact of 1785. Some historians speculate that free-flowing liquor and a locked door contributed to the success of the talks. The compact gave Maryland the river, but residents of each state had equal rights to fish or build structures in the river.
The compact did little to stop the feuding over the Potomac. In the 1900s, the states fought over rights to crabs and oysters. By the time the dispute was over, both sides had river police armed with surplus World War II machine guns.
In 1959, Maryland river police shot and killed a Virginian who was dredging oysters in Maryland water off Colonial Beach — a story John R. Wennersten chronicles in the book "The Oyster Wars."
The federal government had to intervene, and three years later President Kennedy signed into law the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, a bi-state body that governs food inspections and conservation efforts.
That didnt end the gunfire entirely. As recently as the early 1980s, Marylanders and Virginians exchanged shots over crabbing rights in the Chesapeake Bay.
Today, its the same old story — a fight for who has authority.
The most-litigated river in the nation is once again the subject of court cases and back before the U.S. Supreme Court over the water-intake pipe.
The current dispute is over the Fairfax County Water Authoritys effort to replace its water-intake pipe on the rivers shore with one midstream.
Maryland officials blocked the permit, arguing the pipe could damage the river scenically and environmentally. An administrative law judge sided with Virginia and ordered the permit issued.
Maryland then sued its own Department of the Environment to try to rescind the permit, but a circuit court judge in Baltimore upheld the ruling. The state must decide this week whether to appeal.
Meanwhile, Virginia sued in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a 1785 agreement gives Virginians certain inherent rights, meaning they do not need to obtain a permit in the first place. That case is ongoing.
Ironically, the Supreme Court might not have been created without the river feud. It was in the 1785 discussions that both states realized the Articles of Confederation wouldnt work, and the commissioners returned home to call for a convention.
Two years later in Philadelphia, the Constitution was born.
Mr. Wennersten, whose book "Troubled Waters: An Environmental History of Chesapeake Bay" will be released this summer, says Virginia is clearly in the wrong in trying to install the pipe.
"The heart of the issue that has always been there, and will always be there, is that Maryland has a different attitude toward its rivers and the Bay," Mr. Wennersten says. He and others say Virginia has polluted its side of the river through uncontrolled suburban growth, and they fear that a new pipe will spawn more growth.
Virginians respond that the new water pipe isnt about growth or development, but about drinking water and safety. They say the new pipe is only a replacement and wont draw any more water than is currently permitted.
Everyone agrees the court cases are about much more than the pipe.
The divisions between the neighboring states go beyond conservation versus development. Historians say their stark differences go back to when Virginia was a Protestant colony made up particularly of conservative Anglicans, while Maryland was the New Worlds Catholic colony, but also welcomed other religious "zealots" — including Puritan outcasts from Virginia.
The differences between Maryland and Virginia over the Potomac seem to have been magnified under the two current governors.
Nowhere was that more apparent than two summers ago, when drought beset the region. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered mandatory water conservation, while Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams argued that more than enough water was available in the river and stored in reservoirs, and they didnt restrict water use.
Mr. Gilmores term ends in January, and Maryland will elect a new governor in November 2002.
Lest anyone think the Potomac disputes will become water under the bridge when the two men leave office, longtime river watchers give a reminder of three words: Woodrow Wilson Bridge.


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