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Study of Baltimore water supply passes the legislature

The final step of the wastewater treatment process is the outflow into the Back River
Joel McCord
The final step of the wastewater treatment process is the outflow into the Back River

How Baltimore City manages the region’s water supply will be scrutinized by a task force. The State Senate Tuesday approved legislation to create a task force to study the future of the system.

The House of Delegates had already passed the legislation, so now it goes to Gov. Wes Moore who is expected to sign it.

The task force will report back to the Maryland General Assembly next January.

“We are getting a Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force!” Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski tweeted after Tuesday’s vote.

The task force was one of Olszewski’s legislative priorities this year. He has repeatedly expressed his frustration at the city owned and operated system, particularly its Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is located in the county community of Dundalk.

It has become the target of county officials’ ire for 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.

There also was an explosion and fire at the facility March 15, then at the end of of the month both Olszewski and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott sounded the alarm over a plan to have nearly 700,000 gallons of treated water from the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment dumped into the city’s sewer system, making its way to the Back River plant.

Scott was able to block the treatment of the water in Baltimore.

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 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.

Both Mayor Scott and County Executive Olszewski testified on behalf of the legislation last month. 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 a legislative committee.

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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