Virginia may withdraw water from the Potomac River to supply fast-growing suburbs without obtaining permission from neighboring Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Relying on centuries-old treaties, the court ruled 7-2 in a long-running dispute over growth and development in the Washington area.
Maryland owns the Potomac River under a 1632 land grant from King Charles I, but a 1785 compact between the states gave Virginia certain water rights. The states have squabbled over water and fishing rights in the river for hundreds of years.
The most recent debate stems from a 1996 application by Fairfax County to lengthen an intake pipe in the river that serves its 1.2 million customers. Fairfax said the existing pipe drew water that was too muddy.
Maryland officials fought the project, arguing that its historical control over the riverbed gave it say-so over Virginia’s water plans. The pipe went into use last summer, while the litigation continued.
The Supreme Court appointed an outside arbitrator who sided with Virginia last year, and the high court affirmed that outcome yesterday.
The 1785 treaty allows Virginia to make various shoreline improvements and withdraw water, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony M. Kennedy dissented, arguing that Maryland owns the riverbed and retains control over its use.
“This is major victory for economic development and quality of life in Northern Virginia,” state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said in a statement. “Ensuring that Virginians have access to water in an environmentally sound way will help ensure that Northern Virginia remains vibrant and strong.”
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said in a statement that he was disappointed.
“We felt that Maryland’s historic ownership of the Potomac would result in the state’s victory in this case,” Mr. Curran said.