At first meeting, new Baltimore water task force offers assurances for the future: ‘Our water utility is not for sale’

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“We will not be making any recommendations that involve Baltimore City giving up legal ownership of the water, wastewater and stormwater system," Comptroller Bill Henry, chairman of the Baltimore Water Governance Task Force, said Wednesday night. He's pictured here in February.

At the first meeting of the Baltimore Water Governance Task Force, Chairman Bill Henry chose to start off with some assurances.

“Our water utility system is not for sale,” Henry said. “We will not be making any recommendations that involve Baltimore City giving up legal ownership of the water, wastewater and stormwater system.”


Henry, the Baltimore City comptroller, and his 12 fellow task force members gave few clues Wednesday evening at the Randallstown Community Center about precisely what changes they envision for the management of Baltimore’s water infrastructure. But a few things were immediately clear.

“We will not be making any recommendations that involve turning over day-to-day operations of our system to a private, for-profit entity,” Henry said. “The only other potential path that is not on the table is allowing the status quo to continue.”


Amid problems with aging infrastructure, lagging maintenance, understaffing and problematic billing, a yearslong conversation about making changes finally bore fruit when the task force convened. But to change the status quo, the task force will be “putting in a lot of work in a relatively short period of time,” Henry said.

By January, the task force is supposed to develop its recommendations for the future. Their recommendations could chart the path toward more regional cooperation on water and sewer, or toward a regional water authority, altering the current balance of responsibilities between Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Henry said that even though the General Assembly commissioned the task force earlier this year, it’s possible that the task force could recommend a solution that wouldn’t require the state legislature’s involvement, Henry said.

“It is possible that what we come up with can be worked out by agreements within the subdivisions and local legislation within the subdivisions.”

The current arrangement between Baltimore City and Baltimore County was last updated in the 1970s. Basically, the city owns and manages the system’s three drinking water reservoirs, all located in the county, as well as water treatment facilities and wastewater treatment plants, and it serves many county residents. The county is largely responsible for its network of pipes, and for paying the city a share of the cost to maintain the system.

Much of Wednesday night’s meeting covered that current state of affairs — and the findings of a 2021 report jointly commissioned by the city and county on the water system.

That report, completed by a contractor called NewGen Strategies, listed the issues facing the utility, and recommended that increased regional cooperation be considered.

This year, legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill creating the task force during this year’s legislative session, after Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. unveiled the legislation, with support from top Democratic lawmakers.


But the bill did receive some criticism, including from advocacy groups focused on ratepayers’ rights.

Those groups expressed concerns that they were not given membership on the task force, and that legislators weren’t open to amending the bill after it was negotiated behind closed doors by leaders in the city and the county.

They also expressed worries about the quick timeline that the bill laid out, giving the task force just a few months to make its final recommendations. They have pushed for the task force to conduct analyses to determine whether changing the governance of the water system would present any racial equity or economic equity concerns for ratepayers, particularly if the majority-white county gains more control over the system relative to the majority-Black city.

During a public comment session at Wednesday night’s meeting, representatives from groups such as Food & Water Watch, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service voiced those concerns, and Henry responded.

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“Will there be an equity component to our recommendations? I can’t guarantee that at this point because the recommendation hasn’t been agreed on. But I can guarantee that it will be discussed,” Henry said.

Since the task force schedule was released, many of those same voices have expressed concerns that none of the task force meetings are being held in central locations in downtown Baltimore, or in the majority-Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore.


“The work of the Task Force has the potential to deeply impact Baltimoreans, especially low-wealth and Black, brown, and immigrant communities,” said Rianna Eckel, Baltimore Water Outreach Coordinator with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, in a news release. “It is unacceptable for these meetings not to be held at any easily accessible, central locations in the city, or in the communities likely to be most deeply impacted.”

Water infrastructure problems came to the forefront in West Baltimore last year, when several neighborhoods were placed under a boil water notice because E. coli was briefly found in the drinking water supply.

But issues also have been spread out geographically, given the water system’s age and the high numbers of main breaks and other infrastructure woes. Residents living near the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County have been vocal about pollution issues over the past several years, as investigations showed the city was failing to adequately maintain that facility.

“We worked really hard to try and find a balance geographically,” Henry said of the meeting schedule. “We have two meetings in the city, two meetings in the county and two meetings virtually, to make certain that everybody has the opportunity to participate.”

The task force’s next meeting will take place Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center.