The skies were fair and the air was hot, so it was a perfect occasion for James Smith to wash the family car. He didn't spare the suds on his burgundy Ford Crown Victoria parked in the driveway of his home in Marlboro Meadows.
That's because there are not many other uses for the water.
"Most of the people I know don't drink or cook with this water," said Smith, president of the civic association in this Prince George's County community just north of Routes 4 and 301 in Upper Marlboro.
Because the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's water and sewer mains were too far away when Marlboro Meadows was created in 1965, and a hookup was considered prohibitively expensive, residents were forced to buy service from a private company.
After nearly forty years, while WSSC service along the Route 301 corridor has become commonplace, Marlboro Meadows is still the only unincorporated community in Prince George's that isn't connected to the bi-county public utility. And although officials say that the contractor, Utilities Inc. of Maryland (UIM), is in compliance with state regulations, many of the 3,500 residents say that the well water supplied by the company smells foul and is undrinkable.
"It's awful that we can't use the water. If you get a glass of ice water and let it set for a while, you can see the residue in the bottom of the glass," said Marlboro Meadows resident Vivian Silver. "I don't give this water to my dog."
Cost and bi-county politics have prolonged Marlboro Meadows' water woes. In 1994, Prince George's and Montgomery County, which fund WSSC, set aside $6 million in the agency's capital improvement budget to buy out UIM and connect the community to WSSC mains. WSSC went to court and won the right to purchase the utility, but the $9.7 million price tag set by a jury verdict was more than WSSC had budgeted for.
Both county councils later decided to postpone any connection until Beechtree, a housing development adjacent to Marlboro Meadows, was completed. With a new water main along Route 301 to be funded by developers, the cost to WSSC is expected to be less than $1 million. Montgomery officials estimate that Beechtree will be completed in two years.
Earlier this year, however, members of the Prince George's County Council decided that residents of Marlboro Meadows had waited long enough. In its deliberations with the Montgomery County Council over the WSSC's 2005 annual budget, Prince George's proposed buying and replacing Utilities Inc. and building the connection to WSSC. But Montgomery balked at the cost -- about $19 million. As a result, for the first time in 20 years, the two county councils failed to agree on a budget for the utility. Under state law, if no action is taken, the proposed budget goes into effect by default on July 1.
"The Montgomery Council believes that WSSC ratepayers should not bear this additional burden," said council president Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). The council still supports waiting for development in areas adjacent to Marlboro Meadows.
WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown said his agency is caught in the middle.
"Before we can do anything, the county councils have to come to some type of an agreement regarding this project," Brown said. "We are a bi-county commission. The county councils approve our budget. We don't have any role in terms of development and future growth."
In the meantime, residents say they are not happy with the prospect of continuing to do business with Utilities Inc., which supplies what they describe as inferior water at rates 20 to 40 percent higher than those charged by WSSC.
The company, which operates out of a two-story home with a huge water tank in the back yard, did not return phone calls for comment. When a Washington Post reporter visited the facility this week, an employee took questions but declined to comment or provide any information.
Prince George's officials have expressed disappointment in Montgomery's refusal to consider expediting new water service to Marlboro Meadows.
"We believe that this community has been neglected," said Prince George's County Council member Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville). "We feel that they should have the same benefits as any other community."