Who should manage Baltimore’s water and sewage service? | COMMENTARY

The failure of Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, Maryland’s single largest sewage treatment plant, to meet the terms of its discharge permit has caused the state to order a temporary takeover of the Dundalk facility. City officials had received no shortage of warnings about the plant’s polluted discharge when Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles announced the unprecedented move last Sunday. Even Mayor Brandon Scott acknowledged there are long-standing problems at the city-run plant that have resulted in massive discharges causing elevated bacteria and nutrient loads not only in local waters but ultimately the Chesapeake Bay into which the river flows.

Secretary Grumbles decision to have the Maryland Environmental Service intervene at the city’s cost was well justified under the circumstances. And, at the very least, it demonstrated exactly what one expects of a state regulatory agency — transparency and oversight in the public interest. Ironically, it was the MES that was on the other side of that equation just one year ago when lawmakers were grilling administration officials over the generous $233,647 payout handed Roy McGrath when he left his post as MES executive director to become Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief of staff in 2020. Mr. McGrath is currently expected to go on trial in June on federal criminal charges related to that “severance” package. That also is about the time Secretary Grumbles expects a full report on Back River’s performance, staffing, maintenance and equipment.


The question for Back River, however, is: What’s next? Surely, MES can adequately identify the needs not only at Back River but for Baltimore’s other wastewater treatment facility, the Patapsco Plant at Wagner’s Point. It, too, has gotten criticized for illegal discharges before, not only by the state but from environmental advocates like Blue Water Baltimore. The more fundamental question is whether Baltimore, a city with enormous needs beyond such public infrastructure, ought to be entrusted with sole authority to run the public water and sewer system not only for the city but for Baltimore County.

Privatization has been discussed before, and it’s a non-starter. Two years ago, city voters wisely approved a ban on water privatization, fearful that a loss of public control would result in higher billings, particularly for low-income city residents. But a failure to keep up with needed maintenance along with some atrocious billing problems that have resulted in some customers charged too much and some not at all (including a stunning $2.3 million freebie to the Ritz-Carlton Residences, according to a recently-reported audit of the city’s Department of Public Works) does not inspire confidence in city oversight.


But there is a third possibility. What about a regional authority structured along the lines of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which has since 1918 managed water and sewer service for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties? This would keep the vital service in public hands, but it would also offer a fresh start with, presumably, some additional funding from state and federal sources. There is even a certain historic connection there. One of the individuals instrumental in launching the WSSC a century ago was none other than Abel Wolman, the Baltimore-born and Johns Hopkins-trained engineer whose groundbreaking research led to standardized chlorination of drinking water, vastly improving public health.

Clearly, there would still be challenges. Aging urban water and sewer lines still require substantial investment no matter who runs the system. Both Baltimore and Baltimore County are already committed to spending at least $1.6 billion for system upgrades. But it’s not unreasonable to expect the Hogan administration or its successor to provide some “carrots” and not just “sticks” toward improving water quality, especially given the willingness of late to shower money on all sorts of purposes thanks to a budget surplus that seems to be burning a hole in State House pockets. It would also require, of course, some level of trust between city elected leaders and their counterparts in Towson as well.

All that seems entirely possible, but it would be prudent to study the matter further. We would urge Mayor Scott and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. to consider doing just that — and as soon as possible. If cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay requires cleaning up Back River, maybe cleaning up how best to administer water and sewage service in the Baltimore region ought to be part of the solution, too.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.