Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski look at a wooden water pipe on display at Montebello water treatment plant.
Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski look at a wooden water pipe on display at Montebello water treatment plant. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski toured Baltimore's 99-year-old Montebello water treatment plant Monday to draw attention to the needs of municipalities nationwide for federal help to upgrade their aging infrastructure.

Cardin sipped water from the tap at the Northeast Baltimore plant and declared it excellent, but both Democrats said failure to replace or update old water systems is costing taxpayers and hurting the environment.


"We're blessed by having a good source water," Cardin said, "but it's got to be treated right."

The city-run water system, which relies on three reservoirs in Baltimore County, supplies drinking water to 1.8 million customers throughout the metropolitan area.

While the region's drinking water is clean and safe, Cardin said residents are frequently inconvenienced by breaks in aging, deteriorating lines, which waste millions of gallons of the precious resource. Water system customers also are paying more than they should, he added, because of energy-inefficient facilities.

"This is no longer state of the art," Cardin said of the filtration plant, which was completed in 1915. One of three treatment plants operated by the city, it can process up to 128 million gallons per day from Loch Raven Reservoir or the Susquehanna River.

With about 1,000 breaks occurring annually in the 4,500-mile network of water lines, the city has been working to increase the rate at which it replaces aging, deteriorated pipes. The goal is to swap out 40 miles of line annually before it can rupture, officials explained.

"We can't sit back and watch as water mains break," said Art Shapiro, chief of engineering and construction management at the city Department of Public Works.

But city officials estimate it could cost $4.5 billion to $5 billion to fix chronic leaks, replace break-prone lines and upgrade treatment systems.

Nationwide, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has projected more than $100 billion is needed over the next 20 years to upgrade or replace aging water infrastructure. Without more federal help, businesses could wind up paying more to help maintain water and wastewater systems, the senators warned, and jobs are in jeopardy from continuing deterioration. But Congress has failed for years to reauthorize federal revolving loan funds for drinking or wastewater projects.

"We need to make a commitment to our water infrastructure," said Cardin. He has introduced a bill to provide $50 million a year in matching federal grants to communities to make their systems more resilient and sustainable in the face of changing climate conditions. As chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski has pushed for $200 million in increased funding in a pair of measures.

"We're not saving money by not modernizing," said Mikulski, who noted that her great-grandfather had worked as a ditch digger in the 1880s, helping lay water lines in the city. She and Cardin marveled at an old wooden pipe on display at the plant, but one utility manager pointed out that a crew recently came across one in the ground, still carrying water.