Should Baltimore control the water system?

Another massive water main break in downtown Baltimore has brought to the surface a problem that has been slowly building beneath our feet for decades. Our more than century-old water system routinely leaks millions of gallons into the ground and, with some regularity, experiences spectacular failures that stop traffic, shutter businesses and leave thousands without one of life's necessities. To their credit, some of the city's top officials have been trying to address a problem that is generally out of sight, out of mind. MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeserves on theU.S. Conference of MayorsWater Council, and she recently pushed successfully for a 9 percent water rate hike to help raise funds for system repairs and replacement.

The upshot of that and other recent rate hikes is this: The miles of pipeline the city is able to replace in a given year will, over the next five years, increase eightfold. At that pace, the city should be able to replace all of its pipes, many of which are 75 to 100 years old, in about 75 to 100 years. The mayor's efforts to address this problem are welcome but clearly insufficient.

We know we need to invest more in repairing and replacing Baltimore's water system. But there is only so much we can accomplish by increasing water rates. This year's 9 percent increase comes on the heels of more than a decade of almost annual increases of that much or more. The average water bill for a family of four in the city has more than doubled in that time, and that increase is ultimately somewhat regressive. Water use and wealth don't necessarily correlate. We will need a new funding mechanism to handle this issue comprehensively.

The federal government needs to take a more active role in helping cities and counties to replace their water systems, and Ms. Rawlings-Blake has been an advocate for that cause. How much better off might we be if President Barack Obama's stimulus bill had included more money for job-creating infrastructure work like replacing water mains, rather than temporary tax cuts?

But even without help from Washington, there is more that must be done on the local level, and the first step may be to start looking at it as a regional problem in need of a regional solution — and regional management. Under the terms of a decades-old agreement, the Baltimore Department of Public Works owns and manages the water system, but the majority of its customers and infrastructure lie outside the city. The system serves all of the public water customers in Baltimore County and many in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. Although this week's water main break is in downtown Baltimore, the age and condition of the system is a subject for concern throughout the area.

Under the current division of responsibility, individual jurisdictions in the area do their own capital spending for the replacement of water mains, but the city conducts emergency repairs, fixes fire hydrants and handles operations and billing. The counties are assessed a charge proportionally based on their usage of the system. There has long been grumbling among suburban officials about how efficiently the Department of Public Works handles those tasks and whether their needs are given the same priority as those in the city. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has floated the idea of the county taking over the management and responsibility for the system's assets in his jurisdiction, and some form of that idea may have merit.

Just as city officials are pushing for creative mechanisms to address the Baltimore school system's massive capital needs, so too should the region start looking for new ways to fund water system repairs. But the city's continued sole management of the system is likely to inhibit the willingness of many of the system's 1.8 million customers to support significant new investments in water main maintenance and replacement. Whether justified or not, suburbanites tend to take a dim view of city government management, and recent reports of massive water bill errors don't help the cause.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake doesn't need to be alone in pushing for investments in the water system. Others in the region may be willing to provide assistance, but she may need to give up some control to get it.

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