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Lawmakers call for equitable access to water following report

Bryan P. Sears//August 24, 2022

Lawmakers call for equitable access to water following report

By Bryan P. Sears

//August 24, 2022

Sen. Mary Washington, a Democrat who represents Baltimore City and a portion of Baltimore County, hinted at legislation to address access and affordability of water in the 2023 General Assembly session. (Bryan Sears/The Daily Record)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers are calling for a renewed effort to ensure equitable access to water.

Supporters including state lawmakers called for more regulations and even a sliding scale based on the ability to pay. And while they compared water to other utilities, lawmakers who support the effort stopped short of proposing that the industry be regulated similar to other public utilities.

“We know that this is not only an issue for our nation, it is particularly an issue here in the state of Maryland,” said Kendra Brown, chair of the Maryland advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “We’ve seen through even our research that the cost of water has gone up. The cost of infrastructure has increased. Access to affordable water has gone down.”

The commission report, originally released in July, focused on the access and affordability of water.

Key recommendations of the report include a call for public water providers to incorporate income-based rate structures. The report also calls for an end of the use of tax liens and shutoffs and for the state should make water assistance nontaxable income.

“The practice of using a basic human right as a way to enforce discriminatory practices for monetary gains needs to come to an end,” said Sen. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore City and Baltimore County. “The elderly, the low-income renters, it’s exacerbated existing racial inequalities.”

The report also calls for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to begin a national study of the problem.

Currently, there are no state or national standards to guarantee affordable access to clean water.

Over the last decade, water rates have increased three times faster than inflation and “much faster than increases in income,” said Brown.

Ongoing impacts of racial segregation in housing exacerbate these concerns in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Some experts tie the rising costs to a decrease in federal aid for water infrastructure. Between 1977 and 2017, that funding has decreased 77%, according to one estimate.

Some jurisdictions have taken steps to address the problem.

In Baltimore, water rates have increased at about 10% per year for the last three years. Much of that cost is driven by the costs of upgrading and repairing infrastructure.

In February, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott launched Water4All. The program uses a rate plan that caps bills between 1%-3% of a customer’s income, based on household size. Residents with an income less than 200% of the federal poverty level — about $53,000 annually for a family of four — are eligible.

Washington hinted at legislation for the 2023 session but declined to provide specifics. She told reporters she favors regulating water services as a utility but that they should not be privatized.

Instead, she said there are models such as the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

“Some of what this is about is to open up the concept that water is not simply something that should be available to those who can afford it,” said Washington. “Like electricity and a home, it should be affordable to everyone.”

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