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Proposed study of Baltimore region's water supply draws fire in Annapolis

A public works employee places a case of bottled water into a car in Baltimore in early September. City officials began distributing bottled water after harmful levels of E. coli bacteria was detected in the drinking water.
Bryan Woolston/AP
FR171481 AP
A public works employee places a case of bottled water into a car in Baltimore in early September. City officials began distributing bottled water after harmful levels of E. coli bacteria was detected in the drinking water.

When it comes to what the government does, it doesn’t get more basic than providing water.

Local and state officials, who are trying to plan the future of the Baltimore area’s water supply, are proposing to create a task force to study the issue and report back to the Maryland General Assembly next January.

At a hearing Wednesday before the House Environment and Transportation Committee, no one spoke against setting up the task force. But some worried it could be a slippery slope towards Baltimore City’s water being privatized.

Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore City Democrat who proposed the legislation, quickly dispelled that.

“So I want to say that on the record, this is not some type of backdoor effort to lead to that,” Smith said.

Mary Grant, the public water for all director of advocacy group Food and Water Watch, said protections need to be added to the task force legislation.

“Otherwise it could unintentionally open the door to privatization, rate hikes and shut offs and exclude the city’s majority Black population from key decision-making,” Grant told the committee.

David Wheaton, an Economic Justice Policy Fellow with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said access to clean and affordable water is a fundamental human right and that the task force legislation doesn’t go far enough to guarantee that.

“We are concerned that the bill as written will have disastrous effects on low income and Black residents of Baltimore and the wider region,” Wheaton said.

The water and wastewater system is owned by Baltimore City under both state and regional agreements. It provides service to 1.8 million residents in the city and Baltimore County, as well as portions of Howard, Harford, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties.

Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski testified on behalf of the legislation. Both noted that the legal agreements regarding the water supply were last updated in 1972, before either of them was born.

“We are at a pivotal moment for our region in how we need to look at this system to best address the needs through the utility,” Scott told the committee.

Olszewski said, “This legislation will advance collaborative decision making, and provide safe and equitable water and wastewater services for the Baltimore region for years to come.”

Olszewski and other county officials have long complained about the city-owned Back River wastewater treatment plant which is located on Back River in Eastern Baltimore County.

It has become the target of county officials’ ire because it is dumping massive amounts of nutrients and bacteria into Back River.

Last March, the state deployed employees to the plant to correct what was called “catastrophic failures.” They are expected to remain there through April.

In September 2022, city officials also had to grapple with water contaminated in West Baltimore by E. coli bacteria.

There have also been problems with water billing.

The proposed task force would be made up of 13 members. Five would be appointed by the mayor, three by the county executive, two by the governor and one each by the president of the state senate and the speaker of the house.

The 13th member would come from either Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll or Harford County.

The county and city commissioned a review of water and sewer operations by NewGen Strategies and Solutions LLC. The July 2021 study made several suggestions about how to improve the system, including changing the city’s almost-exclusive management.

“Under the current governance framework, the city and the Director of Public Works are not accountable to the county’s customer service delivery, system reliability or operational efficiency,” the report states.

The report lays out various ways the city and county could share the responsibility of managing water and sewer.

It also points out the current arrangement dates back more than 75 years, when “Baltimore County had less than a quarter of the City's population and was largely undeveloped. No one could have anticipated the demographic shifts that would occur over the following 75 years. A new evaluation of City and County roles and responsibilities in the utility is long overdue.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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