Baltimore Mayor Wonders Why Politicians Don’t Prioritize Water As Baltimore’s Infrastructure Falls Apart
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young recently asked the most ironic question: “Why don’t our elected officials seem to prioritize clean, safe water?”[i]
The phenomenon of politicians ignoring water issues should not perplex Young. After all, just last month he was sharply criticized by the Baltimore Sun for “showing woefully insufficient concern” about the “deteriorating living conditions” at a Baltimore public housing complex that had gone without water service for eight days due to water main breaks.[ii] In the midst of the crisis, residents of the complex said they had received “more help from strangers” than from anyone with the Baltimore city government.[iii]
Furthermore, despite the widespread affordability issues that have challenged Baltimore for years, city leaders have failed to follow through on repeated promises to tackle the issue. The Baltimore City Council first assured residents it would take up the issue in October 2016. Over a year later, in November 2017, Young, then the Council President, said that affordability legislation would be delayed until January 2018.[iv] More recently, in May 2019, Young failed to even show up for a hearing on water affordability, and a spokesperson said he is “no longer directly involved” in the legislative effort to ensure Baltimore residents can afford their water bills.[v]
Indeed, the lack of priority on water issues among Baltimore’s elected officials is nothing new, as evidenced by the failing condition of the city’s water and sewer infrastructure. The Department of Public Works has stated that, due to the overall age of the system and long term lack of investment, water main breaks are “an ongoing, nonstop series of challenges” for the city.[vi] This summer, the system faced multiple main breaks that caused sinkholes, interrupting traffic and light rail service for weeks at a time.[vii] As a Baltimore Department of Public Works spokesperson put it: “Things did get away from us. We put low-cost, inexpensive water service ahead of the need to re-invest in that infrastructure, and here we are paying the piper.”[viii]
Of equal concern is Baltimore’s struggle with water quality, as the city has incurred four health violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act since April 2014.[ix] And the wastewater side of the equation isn’t any better: the city reported over 189 million gallons of sewage overflows in 2018 – enough to “fill 285 Olympic sized swimming pools, or half the volume of the Roman Coliseum, full of raw sewage.” The overflows were blamed on inadequate infrastructure and heavy rains, which caused sewage to back up into city residents’ homes.[x]
We could go on to detail other failures – like Baltimore’s inability to implement an accurate billing system for water services[xi] or protect that system from cyberattack[xii] – but instead we’ll skip straight to the point. While Mayor Young wonders aloud why politicians don’t care about water issues, his administration has ignored serious water challenges and has failed in every aspect of water utility operation.
It is clear that Young would rather score political points than do the hard work of addressing his city’s water woes. Last fall, in the midst of a water affordability crisis, failing infrastructure, and public outrage over incorrect water bills, Mayor Young got an idea: turn private water companies into the boogeyman. Working with Food & Water Watch, Young worked at lightning pace to suspend Council rules and speed passage of a charter amendment to ban privatization of the water and wastewater systems in Baltimore.[xiii]
Observers saw right through the ploy, all but calling it a devious distraction. 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.”[xiv]
Today, Baltimoreans are left with deteriorating infrastructure and inadequate utility management with no ability to engage water professionals from the private sector who could deliver proven solutions to their serious water challenges.
So, the next time Food & Water Watch points to Baltimore as a model city for rejecting help from the private sector, ask: how can Baltimore be a great success when elected officials there don’t prioritize clean, safe water?
[i] Video, “The Story of Water – Who Controls the Way We Drink?” 15 June 2019.
[ii] Baltimore Sun, “In Poe Homes water main break, Baltimore failed” 25 June 2019.
[iii] Baltimore Brew, “How is it “fixed?” We can’t flush our toilets!” 25 June 2019.
[iv] Baltimore Brew, “Water affordability legislation delayed in City Council until next year” 22 November 2017.
[v] Baltimore Fishbowl, “As council considers income-based water billing, Baltimore bill payers and advocates share horror stories” 17 May 2019.
[vi] WBAL Baltimore, “Baltimore DPW launches interactive map of water main breaks” 5 January 2018.
[vii] CBS Baltimore, “Crews In Baltimore County Continue To Work On Fixing York Road Sinkhole Site” 12 June 2019; WBAL TV, “Sinkhole swallows part of Light Rail platform, causing more issues in Baltimore” 10 July 2019.
[viii] WBAL Baltimore, “Insurmountable bills lead to water shutoffs in Baltimore” 13 February 2017; Baltimore Sun, “Plan would raise Baltimore water rates over next three years, offer poor residents help with monthly bills” 1 December 2018; Food & Water Watch, “Baltimore Is Ready to Fix the System It Saved” 3 December 2018.
[ix] US EPA Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) Database, August 2018.
[x] FOX Baltimore, “Baltimore saw 189M gallons of sewage overflow this year” 5 December 2018.
[xi] WMAR Baltimore, “Unusually high water bills shock Baltimore residents” 20 December 2016; FOX 45 Baltimore, “Complaints sill pouring in over high water bills, city to investigate” 7 March 2017; Baltimore Sun, “When the water bill is $50,000” 8 February 2018.
[xii] ArsTechnica, “Baltimore’s bill for ransomware: Over $18 million, so far” 5 June 2019.
[xiii] Baltimore Fishbowl, “Baltimore City Council to take up charter amendment that would ban water privatization” 3 August 2018.
[xiv] Baltimore Sun, “EDITORIAL: Privatizing water isn’t the answer” 8 August 2018.