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Fairfax Water, the county’s water utility, is proposing a merger with the water utility in the city of Falls Church.

Falls Church began soliciting “expressions of interest” last month, potentially seeking a buyer for its water system. In response, Fairfax Water submitted a formal merger proposal.

The two neighboring agencies have been at odds for years. There was a series of lawsuits regarding rate-making and other practices, which were largely decided in the county’s favor. Then, Falls Church raised its water rates in September, affecting thousands of customers who reside outside of the city in Fairfax County.

In response, the Board of Supervisors voted in December to adopt a new policy that allows them to set a countywide water rate, regardless of which utility was serving a given county resident, and made Fairfax Water the default service provider for all new development in the county.

Through last year’s rate-setting process and other attention focused on the water system, the Falls Church City Council decided to take a broad view and examine long-term options for the city’s water system, said City Manager Wyatt Shields.

The request for expressions of interest was sent to all the public water utilities in the region, as well as investor-owned utilities that operate throughout the country, Shields said. The final deadline for response was today.

Fairfax Water believes that a merger would significantly lower water rates for Falls Church customers, according to a letter to Shields from Fairfax Water General Manager Charles Murray. It would also provide increased reliability for the system and reduce capital costs for the city, the letter states.

The proposal also offers Falls Church its own appointee on the Fairfax Water board.

Murray’s letter also tries to discourage Falls Church from pursuing a privately owned utility, contending that it would lead to higher rates.

“While we know you will reach your own conclusions ... we would be surprised if you concluded that that option benefitted either your own citizens or your Fairfax County customers,” the letter states.

The McLean Citizens Association, which represents a number of Falls Church water customers, was active in opposing last year’s rate increase and had suggested a merger in the past. Rob Jackson, MCA president, said a merger would be a win-win.

“The MCA is of the opinion that a merger between the two systems is the best solution for everyone,” he said. “The public benefits from lower rates for water; a high-quality water treatment system, with redundant sources of water; and economies of scale. All of these benefits would come not only to Fairfax County residents, but also residents of the city.”