Potomac River Prepares to Lose Virginia
Our neighboring state says it’s dropping out of a vital pact to protect the river. The question is why.
From where I stand, Virginia is on the wrong side of the river.
I’m not talking about that mansion plastered on the cliff downstream from Carderock that looks like a piece of dental work. Nor Donald Trump’s American flag on the shore across from Violette’s Lock where 450 trees used to stand. Not even the massive new developments in Loudoun County that light up the nighttime sky like a cruise ship.
I mean something more inscrutable.
At a recent meeting for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) the group’s executive director, Joe Hoffman, was worried about a move that threatens the very reason for the ICPRB’s existence. Virginia wants out.
The commission’s creation 72 years ago marked the first time Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the District of Colombia formally acknowledged that the only way to protect the Potomac was to do it together. It was a recognition that the river―and everything else in nature―doesn’t stop at political boundaries. Today, this idea is commonplace, but it’s not out of date.
This is why we in Maryland work with our Virginia friends to reduce pollution, control runoff, protect shorelines and ensure that the river will continue to meet our needs. Rather than a dividing line, the river is a common interest.
No matter. Legislation has been introduced in Virginia’s House of Delegates to withdraw the state from the ICPRB. Funding for the commission already had been stripped out of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2012-2013 $85 billion biennial budget.
The Potomac’s convener
Maybe you’ve never heard of the ICPRB. Here’s a sampling of what it does.
The commission has led in developing the plan for making the tidal Potomac comply (finally!) with the Clean Water Act. It will now help the states and D.C. reach its total maximum daily load pollution goal for meeting water quality standards.
The ICPRB works with Virginia and Maryland to restore the once-abundant shad to the Potomac River. The efforts are paying off, and shad fry from the Potomac are restoring stocks in Virginia’s Rappahannock River.
The ICPRB also convenes the states and area utilities to discuss how to manage the Potomac’s water supply, particularly during droughts. If Virginia drops out of the ICPRB, it will lose a seat at the table.
McDonnell cites budget austerity as is the reason for withdrawing from the pact. It sounds plausible, since budget trimming is today’s political sine qua non, whether symbolic or real.
But in the case of the ICPRB, the line item in question is an annual $151,500, which amounts to about 0.00000355 percent of the state’s two-year budget.
Rob Hartwell, a Republican and McDonnell’s own appointee on the commission, recently released a letter condemning “glaring errors” in the governor’s austerity reasoning, including that dropping out of the ICPRB would cost Virginia at least $530,000 in cost-sharing federal programs and EPA grants.
Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources, Doug Domenech, said the ICPRB provides only a "regional benefit" and should therefore receive "local financing." Yet others point out that the river supplies water for more than three out of every eight Virginians.
In fact, Virginia accounts for a full 39 percent of the Potomac’s watershed. Maryland’s share is 26 percent.
According to Hoffman, it is unlikely that the Virginia legislature will move to reinstate funding. And while states have retained membership in the ICPRB when they can’t come up with their dues money, Virginia's leaders have flat-out stated that their state will withdraw.
In a recent letter to the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the D.C. mayor, Frank J. Principi, chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, urged the state to reconsider.
“There are very few organizations as critical to the future success of our growing region,” he wrote.
Let’s just hope that Virginia thinks again before exchanging sound science for political science.