Rather than wade through the reams of paper that tell the story of the water controversy in which Stephens City and Frederick Water (formerly known as the Frederick County Sanitation Authority) have been embroiled for at least the last three years, simply access Google Earth Maps on your computer.
This exercise — or rather one view — will serve as an introductory primer to this lamentable scuffle over riparian rights. Make Stephens City your Google Maps destination and once the town appears on your screen, scroll westward down Marlboro Road to the quarries, major source of the brouhaha. There are three of them — the north, middle, and south. The first two are clearly identifiable. But finding the third, the south quarry, demands some knowledge of the area. Why? Because it’s been sucked all but dry by the Sanitation Authority as it endeavors to provide a thirsty, growing county with water. As such, the image also offers a sharp metaphor of the escalating town-authority water fight — and presents a glimpse of possible crises to come.
Authority documents dating to 2008, which Judge Burke McCahill recently ordered disclosed to the town, show that the authority has, on occasion, taken as much as 6 million gallons of water over a 24-hour period. This number is twice the amount allowed by the contract between the two entities that has been such a bone of contention and interpretation. Whether or not this agreement ended in 2012, as Stephens City contends, or extends into perpetuity, as the authority maintains, can be debated until Kingdom Come. But the figure — 3 million gallons daily — is etched in stone.
Exceeding that limit may explain the condition of the south quarry, but lends little insight thus far as to why the current litigation still holds sway. No legal experts are we, nor rocket scientists either, but the authority’s violation of the 1992 contract, by its own record-keeping, should be sufficient for the legal system to judge this case in a new light. None dare call the authority thieves, but, if these numbers are correct — and they are the authority’s numbers — the following description may fit rather snugly: “riparian raiders.”
These recent disclosures may prompt Gov. Northam to intervene in the case, or at least suggest some measure of mediation. Earlier this week, Town Council unanimously requested Mayor Mike Grim to write a letter to the governor seeking his succor. This request comes on the heels of an unanswered epistle from Town Manager Mike Majher to State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver seeking his help should Frederick Water turn off the spigot to Stephens City, leaving roughly 2,000 people without water.
The authority believes it’s well within its rights to do so, as the town owes it $5.78 million for unpaid water and sewer services. Court approval is required for such a dramatic and, yes, draconian gesture, but Eric Lawrence, Frederick Water’s executive director, says the law is on the authority’s side. Virginia Code section 15.2-5138 says disconnection can take place if bills are not paid within a 30-day period. Stephens City has not ponied up with a payment since March 2015, which suggests that no hands are totally clean in this unseemly battle. In February, the authority sued the town over this nonpayment.
Nonetheless, cutting off water to a population that, naturally, includes the young, the indigent, and the infirm seems a step — or even a threat — needlessly drastic. Especially when documentary evidence indicates your hands are wet with water that does not belong to you.
Commissioner Oliver has it well within his power to keep the water flowing to Stephens City residents, as state code says such a move on the authority’s part could be determined deterimental to the health of the affected community. Ya think?
Or perhaps Mr. Northam, a physician in his former life, may deem it proper to step in. We hope so, much as we hope that the town and the authority can come to some sort of table and iron this whole mess out.
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