If Baltimore were actually considering privatizing its water system, the 50 or so people who were protesting outside City Hall on Wednesday would have had a strong case to be upset. But it's not. Rather, Baltimore is looking for a consultant to evaluate the operation and maintenance of its aging system to find ways to increase efficiency — something that should be greatly in the public interest at a time when rates are constantly going up and broken water mains are distressingly common. Something needs to be done.

To give the protesters their due, there is reason to be skeptical about turning the system over to private operators. Academic studies of municipalities that have privatized their water services come to mixed conclusions about whether it leads to more efficient operation or maintains water quality. But there are enough horror stories — Atlanta's experience with mud colored water, for example — to be wary of the risks.

Proponents of privatization argue that water is generally under-priced by municipal systems for political reasons and that private operators would be willing to raise rates where politicians would not. For better or worse, Baltimore does not appear to have that problem; rates are going up 42 percent over the next three years, on top of annual increases of about 9 percent dating back for a decade. Moreover, the promise that a private operator would do a better job of investing in long-term system maintenance is belied by the facts that borrowing costs for governments are generally cheaper than for private enterprises, and that a company would have a disincentive to invest in infrastructure that would almost certainly last far beyond the end of its contract. After all, some of the pipes that are now breaking are more than a century old.

At the same time, Baltimore cannot afford for its water system to keep on the same path. The double-digit increases in the years ahead are the inevitable result of the city's struggle to keep up with Environmental Protection Agency mandates to shore up an aging system in compliance with the Clean Water Act, and despite them, we're still only treading water, so to speak, when it comes to replacing those leaky pipes.

The federal government should be more involved in paying to address what is rapidly becoming a national crisis, and Mayor Rawlings-Blake has been active in advocating for that cause. But given the state of gridlock in Washington, we can't expect that to be a solution any time soon.

Looking for efficiencies in the operation of the water system isn't likely to solve the problem either, but it is a necessary first step. The city's request for proposals asks for a firm to evaluate its water and wastewater treatment plants for their use of technology and general operational efficiency. There is nothing in the request that would remotely suggest that it is evaluating whether privatization would be appropriate. Rather, it is geared toward ensuring that the city's operations follow best practices. If the exercise helps mitigate future rate increases, it will be well worth it.

But the city should use the process as a springboard to consider broader changes in how the water system is managed. It serves some 1.8 million people, and the large majority of them do not live in the city and thus have no real way to hold the system accountable for its management. Under the current arrangement, which dates back several decades, individual jurisdictions within the Baltimore water system's service area handle their own capital spending for the replacement of water mains, but the city retains responsibility for emergency repairs, operations and billing. Some sort of shared management of the system — as Baltimore County officials have suggested from time to time — would create more favorable conditions to start treating the water system as a regional problem.

However Baltimore proceeds, though, it needs to do so as transparently as possible. Part of what fueled Wednesday's protests was the city's denial of a Public Information Act request for the proposal submitted by one of the two companies bidding for the consulting contract. The firm, Veolia, refers to itself as the "world's leading water service company," and it is indeed one of the biggest players in private management of water systems, though it also conducts the kind of consulting work Baltimore officials say they want. Given that the contract has not yet been awarded, the city may well have been justified in declining to release the proposal. But there is no question that officials need to better explain what they hope to accomplish. The fact that 50 people were willing to protest even the possibility that the city would consider privatizing water the water system should show just how concerned the public is about the delivery of the most vital of city services.


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