A General Assembly bill that could transform how the Baltimore area’s water and wastewater infrastructure is operated will get its first hearing Wednesday.
A few local politicians and water advocates are raising questions about the proposal, which would set up a task force charged with determining the best governance for the systems, which are largely owned by Baltimore City but also serve Baltimore County and others in the region.
Some are questioning who would be on the task force, while others worry about what a more regionalized water and sewer system could mean for Baltimore, citing similar efforts elsewhere in the U.S. that took control from city leaders and disadvantaged urban water customers.
The proposed task force comes amid continued water billing problems and in the wake of serious infrastructure failures, including pollution overages at the city’s wastewater treatment plants and the contamination of West Baltimore drinking water pipes with E. coli bacteria.
The bill is a culmination of decades of discussions between the city and county, framed by a massive demographic shift, with Baltimore becoming less populous than its burgeoning suburbs. And it overlaps other conversations about regional cooperation, including a push for an area transit authority.
The water and sewer task force would consider a 2021 study commissioned by the city of Baltimore and Baltimore County, which recommended increased collaboration on water and sewer.
“The current governance structure was adopted when Baltimore City was the state’s primary center of industry and commerce and the most populous jurisdiction in Maryland,” the study read. “No one could have anticipated the demographic shifts that would occur over the following 75 years. A new evaluation of city and county roles and responsibilities in the utility is long overdue.”
If the General Assembly signs off on the task force (the bill has the support of House and Senate leaders), the panel’s recommendations will be due in January — in time for the 2024 legislative session.
Enough seats at the table?
The proposed 13-member task force seems designed to give the city the biggest voice in the future of the system it built and owns.
Mayor Brandon Scott would appoint five members. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. would pick three and Gov. Wes Moore two. Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones would each pick one member from their chambers, and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball would get one pick in his capacity as chair of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. All are Democrats.
In theory, Ball’s pick would represent his county as well as Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties. But the Republican leaders of the latter two — both of which purchase untreated water from the city — are concerned they wouldn’t have designated seats on the task force.
“Carroll County believes all four counties [in addition to Baltimore County] should have the opportunity to sit on the referenced task force,” Carroll County Commissioners’ President Ed Rothstein said in a statement. “Each should be included due to the diverse water needs and uses of each jurisdiction.”
The list of people interested in joining the task force goes on: the City Union of Baltimore, which represents certain public works employees; advocacy groups focused on environmental protection and drinking water access; the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is listed only as an adviser.
”If they were to ask, ‘MDE, would you like to be a voting member?’ I would raise my hand and say, ‘Yes,’ because it’s that important,” Environment Secretary Serena McIlwain said in a recent interview.
Angela Haren is a senior attorney for the Chesapeake Legal Alliance. She has been involved in the legal proceedings against Baltimore over its wastewater treatment failures, representing plaintiff Blue Water Baltimore. Haren said she was disappointed to see the bill doesn’t specifically include advocacy groups, subject matter experts or key government agencies.
“One of the whole points of a task force is to get interested stakeholders — and all interested stakeholders — in the room,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Charles Sydnor of Baltimore County, who sponsors the bill on the Senate side alongside Democratic Sen. Jill Carter of Baltimore, said he is open to considering other compositions for the task force.
“With most of these task forces and work groups and things, you’ll find out at the hearing who else wants to be a part of it,” he said. “That’s just a part of the process.”
Advocates urge caution
No matter who ends up on the task force, some worry that regionalizing the water supply raises other questions and risks.
Mary Grant of Baltimore, who is the Public Water for All campaign director at Food and Water Watch, rattled off issues she said need to be considered.
She wants to discuss who a regional water authority would be accountable to, how a transfer of ownership or management could impact the city’s finances and what effect it would have on the city’s water affordability efforts — not to mention the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that compels it to minimize sanitary sewer overflows from its aging network of pipes.
The task force also must provide ample opportunities for public input, she said, something the legislation doesn’t address.
Grant is concerned the idea of regionalizing Baltimore’s systems is viewed as a cure-all for the region’s recent infrastructure struggles, but that it won’t address chronic underfunding and understaffing that contributed to the wastewater treatment plant problems over the past few years.
“It sounds like people are thinking that this might be a silver bullet,” Grant said. “But how we’ve seen it play out in other places — it raises a lot of concerns.”
In Detroit, for instance, it happened under duress. Under pressure from an outside emergency manager and a bankruptcy judge, the city and its surrounding counties formed the Great Lakes Water Authority, which leased the water and sewer system from Detroit.
Some argue it wasn’t a fair deal, including Monica Lewis-Patrick, who helped found We The People Detroit, an advocacy group fighting state overreach.
A 2019 study from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, found the infrastructure was not properly appraised, and said Detroit should be receiving $215 million a year instead of $50 million. What’s more, Detroit residents pay $13.6 million of the $50 million, since the lease payment is covered by all ratepayers.
Furthermore, Lewis-Patrick said, no discussion of regionalization is complete without considering that the suburbs of cities such as Baltimore and Detroit grew by way of white flight. The cities built out the infrastructure for the counties, but had dwindling tax bases of their own to pay for maintenance and repairs. That should be taken into account when costs are allocated as part of a regional authority, she said.
“Communities that live in the outer circle — that usually are more predominantly white, middle- and upper-class — then they cannot assume that they know what’s best for Baltimore, and they also must take some ownership that they have divested from Baltimore, probably similar to Detroit, for over 50 or 60 years,” she said.
The 2021 study of the Baltimore area’s water system points to a few examples for consideration, including D.C. Water and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (recently renamed WSSC Water).
D.C. Water is legally independent from Washington, D.C., and provides water services to city residents, while operating the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant that serves the District of Columbia and its suburbs. WSSC Water serves Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and is run by a board of commissioners selected by the county executives and approved by the county councils.
Doug Celmer, a Baltimore County resident who said he signed up to testify Wednesday in Annapolis, plans to advocate for a “Baltimore Suburban Sanitary Commission” modeled after WSSC.
“If it’s good enough for Prince George’s and Montgomery County, it’s good enough for the Baltimore area,” Celmer said. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Celmer, who said his family has lived along the Back River for about a century, said he and his neighbors have been affected personally by the pollution from Baltimore City’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, motivating them to get involved.
Celmer’s Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association, along with two others from Baltimore County, the Rockaway Beach Improvement Association and Sussex Community Association, sent a letter to House and Senate leadership stating they “no longer have trust or faith in the ability of the city of Baltimore to operate the plant effectively,” and voicing their support of a regional authority.
Simply renegotiating the old agreements between the city and county would be akin to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Celmer said.
“We need a different ship,” he said.