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Privatization could improve Baltimore’s troubled water system | COMMENTARY

Calvin Smith and Henry Jones were some of the residents of Poe Homes in West Baltimore who were left without water for several days after a main break.
Calvin Smith and Henry Jones were some of the residents of Poe Homes in West Baltimore who were left without water for several days after a main break. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The record is clear: Baltimore’s residents have long suffered under the city’s poor management of the water and sewer systems. And unfortunately, the list of failures continues to grow by the day.

Under city control, the Baltimore water system has failed to meet some drinking water standards several times in recent years. The wastewater system also struggles: since 2002, the city has faced an ongoing consent decree lawsuit from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment for repeated illegal sewage discharges. In 2018, the city reported over 189 million gallons of sewage overflows. The old and failing system has repeatedly caused toxic sewage to back up into residents’ homes and overflow into local streams, putting both public health and waterways at risk.

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This past June, a water main break left the Poe Homes of Baltimore — a major public housing complex — without any water services for more than eight days. Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young and the city government were sharply criticized for their failure to respond to the crisis as hundreds of residents went days without water to drink, bathe, flush toilets or cook. The Baltimore Sun editorial board said that city officials “failed” when they “showed woefully insufficient concern about the deteriorating living conditions at the complex.”

Other main breaks due to deficient infrastructure have caused sinkholes, routinely snarling traffic and interrupting light rail transit services for weeks at a time.

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The Department of Public Works has long been criticized for its failure to implement a new billing system for the water utility, leading to thousands of incorrect bills and customer complaints. In addition, the department has reportedly ignored customer inquiries on incorrect water bills, leaving customers zero options to dispute billing mistakes and other problems.

And that was when customers could actually receive and pay their water bills! For over three months, the Baltimore DPW computer systems were shut down because of a cyber attack. Authorities say that the impact of the attack will cost the city more than $18 million. And Baltimore residents will be on the hook for paying bills that cover multiple months of water service, which is sure to put a strain on many household budgets.

These incidents provide clear proof that the city is woefully unprepared to handle the enormous responsibilities that go along with managing complex water systems.

So, let’s stop and review the staggeringly backward logic that activists and other supporters presented in favor of Ballot Question E — the charter amendment that banned any support from professional water companies — this past November. In short, they argued: Our water and sewer systems are really struggling. So, let’s go out of our way to ban any assistance from water professionals who have the expertise and the financial capacity to help.

Baltimoreans deserve better than the water services they are receiving from the city. Yet all activists and city leaders have provided is assurance that the failing status quo will continue.

Food & Water Watch has celebrated Ballot Question E as a “huge victory” and named the city a “public water hero” — seemingly failing to care as shockingly poor water services have continued unchanged. As The Baltimore Sun editorial board put it after the charter amendment was approved, “what we should not do is pretend that banning privatization actually solves anything.”

We’ve seen this story play out elsewhere — instead of doing the hard work to address water woes head on, municipalities follow Food & Water Watch’s misguided ideology down a road to nowhere. With the passage of Ballot Question E, Baltimore has summarily taken proven solutions for its water and wastewater systems off the table. Baltimore leaders have allowed activists to turn its water services into a political issue instead of working to address system deficiencies and improve services to residents.

Instead of restricting its options, Baltimore could have engaged the private sector for assistance just like thousands of other municipal governments across the country. Water companies offer the experience, expertise and access to capital necessary to address severe municipal water challenges. These companies invest more each year in community tap water systems than the federal government, and their water quality record is second to none.

Unfortunately for Baltimoreans, their city has chosen politics, blind ideology and a failing status quo over proven, pragmatic solutions.

Robert F. Powelson (info@nawc.com) is president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Water Companies.

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