Baltimore water officials have been dogged in the past year by a series of extremely public problems: widespread billing errors that required millions in refunds, massive water main breaks that closed downtown streets, and a collapsed stormwater culvert that took five months and $7 million to fix.
Accompanying those issues has been criticism from customers, many of whom are upset with rising costs and what they see as lapses in service.
But city officials say that behind the scenes, they have been making progress on the city's aged and long-deteriorating water system.
Facing more than 1,000 water main breaks a year, Baltimore officials are making sure that individual projects conform with long-term goals, and setting strategies to make forward-looking — rather than reactive — investments, said Rudy Chow, the city's head of water and wastewater.
Officials are rolling out a new asset management division that is designed to boost efficiency. They recently submitted a new plan to the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to balance their priorities with those of regulators, in part by asking for more time to complete federally mandated projects. They're planning a major capital project to upgrade meters and billing systems.
And they're negotiating a new cost-sharing agreement with some counties, asking them to contribute more to maintain a system that they rely on — as shown by the 2009 Dundalk water main break that flooded parts of Baltimore County and disrupted service in Anne Arundel.
Industry experts say the city is doing a lot of things right.
"I give them credit for actually tackling the problem, talking with other people, working on an integrated plan," said Greg DiLoreto, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
In 2011, the organization's state chapter gave the city a grade of C- for its improved water efforts — a middling mark, but in a nation where infrastructure woes are common, one that ranked Baltimore ahead of many other large cities.
To finance the upgrades, the city has substantially increased its capital improvements budget, in part by accepting ballooning levels of revenue bond debt, and has boosted baseline revenue by hiking water rates.
Jeff Eger, executive director of the Water Environment Federation, a nonprofit that studies utility best practices, said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other city leaders are "right on target" with their efforts.
Still, the number of massive water main breaks hasn't slowed. A large break in the Canton Industrial Park recently caused geysers to shoot into the air and part of Newkirk Street to collapse. And the problem of water-billing errors remains unresolved, leading to continued criticism.
Residents have complained that the city is placing the burden of its crumbling system on their backs.
"We're sick and tired of being taxed to death," Canton resident Joe Collins Jr. said in June, just before the Board of Estimates voted to approve a 9 percent water rate hike.
Others say that billing problems are continuing all across the city, and that officials remain ill-equipped to handle the situation.
"People write to me all the time, and I don't know what to tell them," said Linda Stewart, a well-known critic of the city's water billing process. The Curtis Bay woman railed against overcharges long before an audit flagged problematic bills and the city announced plans to issue millions in refunds.
"To me it's probably gotten even worse," she said. "I'm seeing a lot of big, larger errors."
McCray said he received poor customer service last year when he complained about a faulty meter. He said the issue was resolved only after he got City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young directly involved.
"I shouldn't have to get on the phone with my councilman every time I have a problem with the water department," he said. "The water department should be run efficiently. If we're going to be getting terrible customer service, we need to be paying a cheaper price."