Baltimore provides water and wastewater services to approximately 1.8 million people, many of whom are Black and low-income. Unfortunately, aging infrastructure, due to systemic underinvestment, has led to continuing problems with management, water quality and affordability.
A new Baltimore Water Regionalization Task Force aims to rectify some of these issues. Yet, serious questions have arisen about the structure of this new task force and what it seeks to achieve. We support efforts to improve Baltimore residents’ access to safe and affordable water. But to do so, this task force must carefully study the challenges facing Baltimore’s water and sewer system, and not hastily call for a new governance model that will disenfranchise residents and disproportionately harm the city’s Black residents.
For too long, Baltimore residents, particularly in largely Black neighborhoods, have paid too much for bad water. Baltimore has a history of water policies that harm its Black residents disproportionately. In 2019, the Legal Defense Fund found that Baltimore’s water affordability crisis has, and will continue to have, this kind of detrimental impact on Black neighborhoods.
In 2020, water bills in Baltimore exceeded 2% of median income — the affordability threshold for water — in 131 of 200 census tracts, 108 of which were majority-Black. Baltimore also used to regularly place liens on homes for as little as $350 in unpaid water bills, which contributed to an overall decrease in homeownership.
Baltimore has taken steps to correct some of these problems, especially when it comes to affordability. The city has started to implement the 2018 Water Accountability and Equity Act by creating the Water4All affordable water program. Also, a new Water Customer Advocacy and Appeals office has already begun meeting with advocates.
The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill creating the new task force, designated to propose new governance models for Baltimore’s water system to inform coming state legislation. This report is due in less than a year, and the bill does not require a concrete public engagement process. The bill also does not require that the task force include the people most directly impacted by Baltimore’s water issues, including low-income ratepayers, workers, or community-based organizations that represent low-income ratepayers.
The task force is only required to review the findings of two sections of a single consultant’s report. That consultant’s report did not assess the impact of new governance models on racial equity or offer any type of analysis about how different governance structures will affect ratepayers in the Baltimore region. The consultant’s report also does not mention the affordability programs that residents and community groups have long fought for or Baltimore City’s prohibition on water system privatization.
To put it plainly, the task force is not structured in a way that will protect Baltimore residents’ access to safe, affordable water.
Regionalization is one of the governance models that the consultant’s report mentions. Efforts to regionalize water systems in other jurisdictions, such as Detroit and Birmingham, have hurt Black communities, according to the LDF report. The regionalization of Detroit’s utility system also deepened regional water and sewer insecurity and racial inequities. Between 2014 and 2019, more than 141,000 households in Detroit had their water service disconnected for nonpayment. These shutoffs disproportionately, if not almost exclusively, Detroit’s Black residents, who at the time comprised nearly 80% of the city’s population.
We believe that for the task force to protect Baltimore residents’ access to safe, affordable water, it should adopt the following principles and recommendations:
- Conduct a racial equity impact assessment and an economic equity impact assessment of any different governance models put forward
- Conduct multiple public hearings and accept public comments through a process that is open and accessible
- Appoint individuals who represent low-income ratepayers, union representatives who represent affected workers, and representatives from community-based organizations that represent low-income ratepayers
- Limit its scope to public sector solutions that will exclude private for-profit ownership, protect democratic decision-making and the rights of workers and residents, and not undermine or conflict with local water affordability laws and charter protections approved by voters
- Expand the timeline to allow at least three full years to conduct the review. There must be time for a proper economic and racial equity analysis regarding the impact of changing the control or governance of the water department.
Baltimore is already working to address the water affordability crisis that has harmed residents of the city’s Black neighborhoods. Rushing to establish a new governance model without proper public engagement and without critical analyses of how a new model will affect Black residents and low-income ratepayers risks undermining this progress and creating even greater disparities.
We strongly encourage the Baltimore Water Regionalization Task Force to adopt the proposed principles and recommendations supported by the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, which has been organizing for affordable and accountable water billing since 2016.
David Wheaton, an economic justice policy fellow at the Legal Defense Fund, and Mary Grant, a Baltimore resident who is campaign director at Public Water for All, are both specialists on water affordability issues and members of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, which works to ensure clean and affordable drinking water.