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Lawmakers, activists seek remedies to make clean drinking water more accessible and affordable

A new report details spiking water costs in Maryland and across the U.S., and the threat those skyrocketing prices pose to residents having access to clean, affordable water. Getty Images.

For almost seven years, the Barnes Memorial Church in Northeast Baltimore came perilously close to bankruptcy — all because the church owed the city almost $7,000 on its water bill. It took years of navigating the legal system and the city bureaucracy for the church to settle its debts, avoid foreclosure, and secure its financial future.

“We had all kinds of inconveniences, all kinds of harrowing experiences, because we did not know the process,” recalled Bishop Mark James, the church pastor.

Barnes Memorial is hardly alone. Across the state, residents regularly face service shutoffs and worse due to their inability to pay their water bills.

But Maryland lawmakers aim to do something about it. Armed with a new report on spiking water costs in Maryland and across the U.S., and the threat those skyrocketing prices pose to state residents having access to clean, affordable water, lawmakers on Wednesday called for legislative remedies and help from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the federal government to protect what they call a fundamental human right.

“If one does not have access to clean water or affordable water, one is considered homeless,” said state Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City). “It’s accelerated the decline of urban, minority neighborhoods, and stands as an impediment to community revitalization.”

The report, issued a few weeks ago, comes from the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. All 50 states have advisory committees to the powerful commission, and the Maryland members, using the Civil Rights Commission’s imprimatur, decided to spotlight the issue of water affordability and accessibility.

What they found dismayed them. According to the study, water access varies greatly in the state, and there is no government mechanism to guarantee that Marylanders have equal access to safe, affordable drinking water. The state and water utilities have a patchwork of programs designed to help struggling residents pay their bills, but there is no consistent fail-safe. Access to water becomes a civil rights issue because communities of color are disproportionately impacted by rising costs and punitive practices by water providers seeking to collect unpaid bills — and that in turn becomes a public health challenge.

“People can lose their houses,” said Kendra Brown, who chairs the Maryland advisory committee. “Not having running water — you can lose your children. So we have to look at what the dire and extreme consequences are.”

Brown, a former top congressional staffer from Bowie who is now vice president of public policy at MasterCard Worldwide Inc., was joined by lawmakers, other members of the commission’s advisory group and community activists at a news conference outside the House of Delegates office building in Annapolis on Wednesday. Two Maryland legislators, Del. Sara Love (D-Montgomery) and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), are among the advisory group’s members.

The commission study found that water prices have risen nationally at three times the inflation rate over the past decade, far exceeding increases in household income. Advocates and lawmakers attribute that trend to a variety of factors, including the fact that water delivery is largely unregulated in Maryland.

While some small private water utilities are regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission, which has oversight over electric and gas utilities, Baltimore City government runs its own water utility, which serves the city and Baltimore County. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are served by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which has its own governing structure but also a raft of staff turmoil and political infighting. And many Maryland homes use well water.

The Civil Rights panel’s report recommends ending taxation of water payment assistance as income at the federal and state levels; passing the federal Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability Act, which would create a trust fund for water infrastructure that could provide as much as $35 billion a year for water and sewer systems across the U.S.; and passing measures in Maryland that would create income-based rate structures for water users and end the practice of water shut-offs and tax liens on residents who fall behind on their bills.

In an interview, Peña-Melnyk, who chairs the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said she expected her committee to at least consider some of these recommendations during the 2023 General Assembly session. Washington said she is contemplating a measure that would create a Maryland version of the federal Clean Water Act.

“In Maryland, we’re known for our advocacy of clean water, for the importance of having a clean [Chesapeake] Bay,” she said. But, she added, there is a disconnect between the ideal of clean water and the ability to deliver it uniformly to Maryland households.

All of the speakers at the Annapolis news conference Wednesday described clean, affordable water as a fundamental human right, as defined by the United Nations.

Shannon Mouton, executive director of Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, a nonprofit that works with struggling families, said she regularly sees the devastation brought on families who are unable to afford their water bills.

“We’ve all said water is a human right. It’s more than that. Clean and affordable water is a moral imperative,” she said. “Without water, people die. What does it say about us, about my home, where I grew up, that we cannot guarantee affordable water services to our citizens?”

James, the Baltimore minister, said that while his church was dealing with its own water crisis, it was helping an 84-year-old grandmother who had to decide between paying for her medical care and keeping her water turned on. Now that he and his congregation have learned how water service in Maryland can so easily be taken away, he said, “we are water activists forever.”