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Baltimore regional leaders envision new management structure for water and sewer utility

The filtration system at the Back River wastewater treatment plant in Baltimore County. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Officials from Baltimore City and Baltimore County have decided to jointly confront the myriad issues facing the regional water and wastewater system managed by the Baltimore City Department of Public Works.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) and Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) appeared at an Annapolis news conference Tuesday with several lawmakers from the two jurisdictions to discuss forthcoming legislation designed to update and improve the management of regional water and sewer services. They were joined by Serena McIlwain, Gov. Wes Moore’s choice to head the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The legislation, to be introduced by the leaders of the city and county Senate and House delegations — Sens. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) and Charles Sydnor (D-Baltimore County) and Dels. Stephanie Smith (D-Baltimore City) and Eric Ebersole (D-Baltimore County) — would create the Task Force on Regional Water and Wastewater. The new task force would be charged with making recommendations to modernize the governance of the region’s water and wastewater utility, which currently operates under agreements dating back to 1972. The water system itself dates back to the middle of the 19th century.

Under existing state law, Baltimore City bears the sole responsibility for the water supply and wastewater operations, maintenance, and capital investments, while Baltimore County is the only surrounding jurisdiction that pays a significant share of these costs, even though some residents in Carroll, Harford and Howard counties also receive water and sewer services from the utility. Anne Arundel County pays for water access in case of an emergency shortage, but isn’t currently drawing any water from the Baltimore City sources.

The leaders touted the legislation, which has been endorsed by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), as a hallmark of increasing regional cooperation, and said it would lead to a more efficient, equitable, and sustainable system for ratepayers throughout the Baltimore area.

“Today’s announcement is about finding better solutions for all of our residents,” Olszewski said. “There’s perhaps no issue that ties us together more than drinking and wastewater services.”

The city’s water system, which serves 1.8 million customers in the region, has been struggling for years, and has been harshly criticized for multiple billing problems that were exacerbated by a cyber attack. Last year, there were reports of multiple sewage spills into area waterways that flow into the Chesapeake Bay from the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants.

“Together, we are securing a better future for all of our residents,” Scott said. “Water is a human right and simply providing access to water and sewer services isn’t enough.”

Local leaders considered the presence at Tuesday’s news conference of McIlwain, who is expected to be confirmed to take over the Maryland Department of the Environment for the fledgling Moore administration, as a hopeful sign. Last year, then-state Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), along with other lawmakers and environmental leaders, placed some of the blame for the environmental problems at the wastewater plants to lax inspections and a hollowed-out bureaucracy at the MDE.

McIlwain pledged that the administration would be a full partner in the deliberations over the future of water and wastewater services, and said her agency would provide funding for infrastructure and equipment improvements at the Back River and Patapsco plants that benefit all of the surrounding communities.

“This is critical for our public health and the protection of our waters, which we love so much in Maryland,” McIlwain said. She called the “collaboration” between Baltimore City and Baltimore County “an exciting opportunity.”

Under the coming legislation, the Task Force on Regional Water and Wastewater would be charged with examining the current management structures and agreements at the utility along with other existing regional water and wastewater governance models; would consider alternative governing structures for the Baltimore region’s water and wastewater utility and analyze the fiscal implications; and would recommend a preferred management model.

The task force would consist of 13 voting members:

  • Five members appointed by Scott;
  • Three members appointed by Olszewski;
  • Two members appointed by Moore (D);
  • One member of the state Senate appointed by Ferguson;
  • One member of the House of Delegates appointed by Jones; and
  • One member appointed by the chair of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council representing either Anne Arundel, Carrol, Howard or Harford Counties.

The task force would submit its final recommendations to the governor, speaker, Senate president, mayor and county executive by next January. The expectation is that the recommendations would then be used to guide legislation to be introduced in next year’s General Assembly session. Olszewski said that because the bill being put in this year is emergency legislation, the task force can begin being organized as soon as the measure becomes law.

Doug Myers, the senior Maryland scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he hopes state and local officials will use the process to increase transparency and improve communication with communities and stakeholders about the quality of drinking water and the operation of the wastewater treatment facilities.

“The current system,” he said, ” has serious flaws.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Anne Arundel County isn’t currently drawing any water from the Baltimore City sources.


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Baltimore regional leaders envision new management structure for water and sewer utility