Mist rises from Loch Raven Reservoir at sunrise Friday morning. The reservoir provides water to residents of the city and Baltimore County, but some county leaders want to create a regional organization to oversee water and sewer service.
Mist rises from Loch Raven Reservoir at sunrise Friday morning. The reservoir provides water to residents of the city and Baltimore County, but some county leaders want to create a regional organization to oversee water and sewer service. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Some members of the Baltimore County Council say it’s time to rethink management of the water system that serves Baltimore and surrounding counties.

The council is considering a resolution supporting the creation of a regional authority to handle the area’s water and sewer needs. The measure doesn’t spell out details, but urges the county administration — along with city, state, and other officials — to investigate the idea.

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The Baltimore Department of Public Works manages the water system, which provides drinking water to 1.8 million people in the region, including about 235,000 county household and businesses. The system’s three reservoirs are owned and operated by the city, but located in Baltimore County. The city handles water billing, but the county handles sewer billing for its residents. Each jurisdiction charges its own rates, which are rising in both places, vexing many residents.

Water has been a politically touchy issue between the city and the county. County Council members have complained about communication problems during water main breaks in the county. County officials have also been frustrated with long-running problems with the city’s water billing system. And the two governments have argued over roughly $23 million the city says the county owes for water.

The resolution cites recent water main breaks and says the county’s “public water infrastructure may be approaching the end of its useful life.”

"There are so many problems with it, and I just think we need to scrap the current system,” said Councilman Wade Kach of Cockeysville, who sponsored the resolution with fellow Republican Councilmen David Marks of Perry Hall and Todd Crandell of Dundalk.

Creating a regional water and sewer authority would take years of planning and require action by the state’s General Assembly, Kach said.

The idea isn’t new. The late Kevin Kamenetz introduced a nearly identical resolution in 2010 when he was a county councilman. The council approved it unanimously, but the idea never gained traction. Kamenetz, a Democrat who was elected county executive later that year, said at the time that a regional approach “would allow Baltimore County to fully participate in decisions related to its water.”

The issue is thorny because the city owns the water system’s infrastructure and built the dams that created Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty reservoirs and the treatment plants that produce up to 360 million gallons of water a day. But the water comes from watersheds that extend across northern Baltimore County and into Carroll County. The system was built for the city when the city had more residents than the county, but that’s now reversed.

Council members are scheduled to discuss the current resolution Tuesday, with a vote set for Aug. 5.

But the proposal hasn’t been on the radar of many city officials. Several City Council members said they hadn’t heard about it. A spokeswoman for City Council President Brandon Scott said his office was not familiar with the proposal and has been focused on pending city legislation aimed at water affordability.

City Department of Public Works officials had no comment on the proposal. And Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Last month, Young and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., both Democrats, announced that the city and county would undertake a joint review of the water and sewer systems. Their current agreements governing the systems date to the 1970s.

The review is expected to begin in the fall, Olszewski spokesman T.J. Smith said.

The advocacy group Food & Water Watch said it has concerns with the idea of a regional authority. Mary Grant, director of the organization’s Public Water For All campaign, said she worries that turning power over to political appointees who are not elected could reduce democratic oversight of the system.

Grant pointed to the creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority in the Detroit area, which Food & Water Watch criticized as a move that “corporatizes the system by putting appointed, unelected officials fully in charge of the big decisions that determine the cost and quality of service.”

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The group is advocating for the Water Accountability and Equity Act being considered by the City Council. The legislation would create a program meant to ensure low-income households can afford their water bills. It also would create a customer advocacy and appeals office to resolve billing disputes.

“There are proposals being worked on right now to address some of the problems that DPW has,” Grant said. “I would worry that proposals to regionalize [the water system] may undermine ongoing efforts to improve the accountability and equity of the system.”

Some say the County Council resolution urging a regional water authority is premature given the broader review.

Smith said Olszewski “is open to the idea, but doesn’t want to get ahead of the work that we are currently doing with the review.”

“It is a conversation that involves a number of logistics to move forward with such a process," he said in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

County Council Chairman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat, said he understands the sentiment of the measure, but he questioned whether it is needed right now.

“I don’t know if it’s necessary since there is a broader study," he said.

Another council Democrat, though, said he supports the resolution and will be adding his name as a co-sponsor. Councilman Izzy Patoka, of Pikesville, said he wants the county to explore a structure similar to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George’s County.

That commission’s leadership includes a general manager, inspector general, corporate secretary and six commissioners. Each county has three commissioners, who are appointed to four-year terms by the county executives.

Patoka said a regional authority could focus solely on water and sewer matters, while DPW must deal with a myriad of issues.

“I think that it’s a model that we should at least examine to see if it would work for this area,” Patoka said.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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