Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blaketold a congressional panel Tuesday that the federal government must maintain funding for water and wastewater projects because cities such as Baltimore don't have the resources to make required upgrades to antiquated systems on their own.
"Local governments cannot carry the financial burden by themselves," Rawlings-Blake told the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. "We can’t do it just on the back of ratepayers.”
Without "meaningful" federal funding for water infrastructure projects, she said, the city will continue to struggle with water main breaks such as the one in 2009 that flooded 100 homes in Dundalk. Many miles of underground pipes that deliver drinking water to the Baltimore area are more than a century old.
City leaders across the country and environmental advocates have raised concerns about cuts to water and wastewater programs proposed in President Barack Obama's 2013 budget. The spending plan calls for a $69.3 million cut in drinking water projects and a $268 million reduction for wastewater treatment projects.
Environmental groups say that could amount to a $7 million cut for Maryland.
The reductions to water projects come after several years of increases.
The administration’s budget is only a broad guideline and few expect the divided Congress to follow it.
Rawlings-Blake noted that the city is operating under federal mandates to improve the way it treats storm water, which can cause pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Those requirements and upgrades have forced the city to consider new fees for ratepayers, she said.
“As politically unpopular as it is during a slow economic recovery, we may be faced with requiring all properties in Baltimore city to pay a charge based on the amount of their impervious area,” according to the city’s prepared testimony.
"We have an aged system and it is very vulnerable," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who chaired the hearing and who has been a leading advocate on environmental issues in Congress. "The needs are rather immense."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said he shared concerns about the potential water infrastructure cuts and said he supports spending money on the projects. He also said painful cuts will have to be made government wide to address the nation's spiraling budget deficits.
"Sometimes," he said, "you just have to not spend what you don't have."