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Officials propose task force to clean up Baltimore area’s waste, water woes

‘For far too long, too many Baltimore residents have suffered high bills, but poor-quality water,’ says Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore and sponsor of the bill in the Senate. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — A coalition of leaders from the Baltimore area vowing to modernize a water system that serves over a million people.

Baltimore City and Baltimore County officials along with legislative leaders are putting their weight behind a bill creating a task force that will make modernization recommendations. Those recommendations could result in the creation of a regional authority similar to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

“For far too long, too many Baltimore residents have suffered high bills, but poor-quality water,” said Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore and sponsor of the bill in the Senate. “It’s no secret. Our issues are long-standing issues with lead and other toxins in our water. And so this is a step in the right direction.”

Carter’s bill, and identical legislation in the House of Delegates, creates a 13-member task force. The panel, along with a consultant, over the next year would review the regional water system. The group is expected to make recommendations for modernizing the system.

“Our goal is to make this a modern, best-in-class utility structure that best serves our residents, that efficiently delivers the service, and ensures that the water is clean and safe to drink to drink, and make sure that we’re we have a system rooted in equity, that it’s affordable, that’s attainable for our residents,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

Currently, Baltimore City owns and operates a system that serves nearly one in three residents of the state.

That system supplies drinking water or handles wastewater — or both — for the city and Baltimore County as well as portions of Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties.  There are 400,000 water meters in Baltimore City and Baltimore County that are managed by the city.

State law enacted nearly 50 years ago makes billing the responsibility of Baltimore City.

But the city in recent years has been plagued with a number of problems, including issues related to billing.

“When you are doing billing the way that we had been doing billing in 2020, the same way that you were doing in the 1995, of course, there are going to be issues,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott.

An audit last February noted a number of billing issues within the city Department of Public Works. Topping the list was an inability to verify what customers actually owed. The agency also lacked the ability to collect delinquent water bills, and track complaints made by Baltimore County residents.

Wes Moore, then a candidate for governor, ultimately paid a $21,000 water bill while challenging its accuracy.

The mayor, speaking Tuesday, said the city’s billing issues have subsided in the last year, allowing the city to slow the rate of increases.

Even so, the system remains plagued by other issues, including an E. coli contamination that shut down water service for five days to customers in west Baltimore and portions of Baltimore County. The contamination was blamed on an aging system.

The city has also faced environmental concerns stemming from failures at the Back River and Patapsco waste treatment plants.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, praised the task force proposal, calling it “a first step in what’s going to be a long effort.”

“It has been really kind of disastrous situation, and while things have improved, they haven’t improved at scale,” said Ferguson. “I think we need a long term look at what we’re going to do for the water system in the Baltimore region.”