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Parasite Outbreak in Wisconsin Leads to Elimination of Reservoirs in Baltimore and Across U.S.

Tom Pelton

In the Guilford neighborhood of North Baltimore, what had been a scenic man-made lake – a drinking water reservoir, high atop a hill, surrounded by a walking path -- has been transformed into a muddy construction site.

The Guilford Reservoir has been drained, and the tall grassy dams surrounding it are being bulldozed.  Cranes, backhoes and teams of workers are replacing the open drinking water storage pond with underground water storage tanks.

It is part of a $400 million project by the Baltimore Department of Public Works to rebuild five post-treatment, above-ground drinking water storage reservoirs – including Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton – to comply with new EPA drinking water safety regulations.  

In some cases, the reservoirs are not being eliminated, but instead converted to smaller man-made bodies of water that are no longer for human consumption, but have new drinking water storage tanks built next to them.

The removal of the Guilford Reservoir has sparked strongly opposing opinions in the neighborhood.

George Chenoweth complained that water bills for city residents have more than tripled, for both this drinking water project and a federally-mandated sewer line repair project.

“What are we getting for our money? What do we get for our money? It’s insane,” said Chenoweth.  “They keep taxing us to death! I mean, they never end. It never ends.”

Inside her home nearby, Peggy Sparr said she thinks it’s  good that Baltimore is finally investing to upgrade its old and decaying infrastructure.

“I believe that it’s a good thing for the safety of the country,” Sparr said. “As we understand it, the EPA has said it’s not safe to have the open reservoir the way it was, and so it’s good from a safety point of view to make sure that we’re all safe as a country.”

I asked: From what? 

“Well, I guess it’s from terrorists,” said Sparr.

This is a common misconception in the neighborhood – that a fear of ISIS or Al Qaeda dumping poison into drinking water reservoirs drove the creation of the 2006 EPA regulations that are now being implemented. In fact, the main threat  driving the rule came from Canada Geese and other waterfowl, whose poop carries a parasite called cryptosporidium. It causes a diarrheal disease that can be fatal.

Back out at the construction site, city Department of Public Works Spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said that a 1993 cryptosporidiosis disease outbreak in Milwaukee was a wakeup call for EPA and cities across the country. In Milwaukee, 400,000 people became sick and 104 died when cryptosporidium contaminated the city’s open drinking water reservoir.

“Well the main thing is public health. Public health as well as security,” Raymond said.  “Regulations have changed to keep up with the times, and we want to make sure that our drinking water, which has been exposed to the elements, is encased and protected, going forward.”

There is no evidence that anyone in Maryland has ever become ill from cryptosporidium from tap water, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

This lack of any parasite problem with Baltimore’s drinking water system fuels arguments that the EPA mandate is an expensive waste of money.

Steve Via, Director of Federal Relations with the American Water Works Association, said the real story is that Baltimore is one of only about 15 cities across the U.S. – including New York and Rochester – that still have primitive 19th century drinking water storage systems. It’s time for them to modernize to protect future generations, Via said.

“Open finished water reservoirs are a creature of the past,” Via said. “They were installed back in the 1800’s to mid-1900’s and they’ve been going out of service for a number of years, now.”

So Baltimore’s Guilford reservoir may have been beautiful – but it was a dinosaur. And like dinosaurs, it is now gone.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.