E. coli contamination highlights challenges in updating Baltimore’s aging water system

Published on: September 14, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: September 14, 2022 12:23 PM EDT

Charles Jackson of DPW guides residents to the water line where each resident received several gallons of water. Baltimore officials are advising residents of the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods to boil their water before drinking it. E.coli was detected in samples taken from three addresses.

Baltimore officials say that billions in federal money to upgrade water services nationwide could help the city replace the network of pipes and valves that feed residents’ faucets, an aging system that may be implicated in the E. coli contamination of last week.

But nationwide demand, and the city’s vast infrastructure challenges, means whatever funding Baltimore receives from the federal infrastructure program will likely cover only a fraction of its needs, forcing the city to triage high priority projects and residents to bear much of the cost through their water bills.

“There are limited funds and a lot of work to do,” said Yosef Kebede, head of the public works department’s water and wastewater division.

The city’s investigation into the source of the contamination is ongoing, and officials say that they may never know the precise cause. But infrastructure experts agree that contamination is a heightened possibility in a system past its prime, and that incidents like last week’s could become more regular as the infrastructure continues to deteriorate.

Aging pipes mean more frequent breaks

With the implementation of breakthrough disinfection methods in the early 20th century, Baltimore became a leader in supplying clean drinking water. Its surface reservoirs and vast network of underground pipes served as a model for other cities. But with the average age of Baltimore’s water mains now at 75 years old, and many pipes over 100 years old, the aging system is straining the city’s ability to maintain and repair it. That leads to more frequent breaks and leaks, which are among the likeliest causes of the contamination now under investigation.

Mayor Brandon Scott’s office and the Baltimore Department of Public Works did not respond to questions about the frequency of pipeline breaks in the water system. But the American Society of Civil Engineers, which issues annual report cards on infrastructure quality around the country, gave Maryland’s drinking water system a “C” grade on its 2020 report card, a barely passing score that the group partly attributed to aging elements in Baltimore City’s footprint.

Prior to 2016, the city was recording close to 1,000 water main breaks per year. Thanks to targeted investment in aging pipes, the city was able to bring that number down to just under 800 in 2016.

Some of the oldest mains in the city undergird Sandtown-Winchester, one of the West Baltimore neighborhoods where water tests detected potentially deadly E. coli bacteria at three sites, along with other historic neighborhoods like Fells Point and downtown, according to the Mayor’s Office of Infrastructure Development.

“They [water mains] really owe the city no more years of service,” said Kebede. “They’ve done what they can for us.”

DPW Director Jason Mitchell speaks at a press conference out front of the Office of Emergency Management addressing the concerns about the e.coli outbreak in West Baltimore.

Aging water infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to contaminants

As the city’s water infrastructure ages, it becomes increasingly vulnerable to contamination incidents.

The safety of the city’s water relies on the water moving through the system at high pressures, ensuring that the flow is too strong to allow contaminants to seep in, even where there are inevitable leaks in valves or piping. But a large leak due to a main break or a malfunction at a pumping station can lead to a loss of pressure, allowing seepage of contaminated liquid — perhaps from a nearby sewage line or on the street — into the water pipe.

Like many older cities, Baltimore is in a race against the clock to maintain its water infrastructure, aiming to replace 15 miles of pipe per year across its 4,000 mile system. This repair-and-replace tactic is just one tool in the agency’s toolbox, Kebede said, but he called it “critical” that the city at least come close to hitting its annual target. After the pandemic and ensuing supply chain constraints hampered replacement work over the last two years, the Public Works engineer said the city has picked up the pace again this year.

But maintenance work can come with risks when dealing with older, brittle pipes too: One of the possibilities being investigated by the city as the source of the contamination is a water main replacement project near the sites where E. coli was detected.

In recent years, the city has directed hundreds of millions of dollars towards large-scale projects to convert open-air drinking water lakes, including at Druid Hill Park and Lake Ashburton, into buried tanks to comply with federal regulations. The bulk of the $330 million in new funding the city received from the state department of environment to improve its drinking water system since 2014 has gone towards these projects.

But the state doesn’t have enough funding to meet all of the needs statewide, according to Maryland Department of the Environment spokesperson Jay Apperson.

Kebede explained that the city relies on a multi-pronged rating system to assess both the condition of its pipes and how critical they are to keep operating. A pipeline that feeds a hospital or a senior living center, for example, would receive high priority, while the material of the pipe, soil type and the number of main breaks in an area can all factor into the city’s assessment of a pipeline’s health.

Decline in federal funding

Advocates say that the federal government should step in to provide adequate funding to make sure that the city doesn’t have to neglect necessary repairs. Between 1977 and 2017, federal funding for water infrastructure fell by 77%, as noted in a July report on water affordability by the Maryland advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“What you get now is this situation where the level of need is so far out of whack” to the federal funding available, said Jim Brooks, director for Infrastructure, transportation and solutions at the National League of Cities.

That’s especially true in older cities, Brooks said.

The drinking water scare that Baltimore experienced last week is almost routine in some other parts of the country. Baltimore’s boil-water advisory played out as tens of thousands of residents in Jackson, Mississippi, another majority Black city, remained under a boil-water advisory after they were left without basic water service for a week — the culmination of years of dysfunction, disinvestment and depopulation.

Other cities, like New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale, issue boil-water advisories regularly in response to vulnerabilities tied to aging infrastructure.

Baltimore intends to put some of the money it receives through the federal infrastructure bill passed in 2021 towards pipe maintenance. But the funds are likely to fall short: nationwide, the nation’s drinking water utilities need over $472 billion in capital improvements over the next 20 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The infrastructure bill dedicates just $11.7 billion that states can use towards aging water systems.

Gaps between need and funding

In areas like West Baltimore, the gap between the need and the funding available is only widened by the dearth of resources to help residents weather a crisis like last week’s. The bacteria was discovered in a neighborhood that also lacks adequate grocery stores and public transportation, and where roughly 30% of residents in the predominantly Black neighborhood live below the poverty line.

The area’s high percentage of vacant properties could also have been a factor in the contamination, with water leaks in these properties tending to go unnoticed for longer, according to Matthew Garbark, director of the Mayor’s Office of Infrastructure Development.

The contamination, and the range of obstacles the impacted neighborhoods faced in contending with it, have left many residents disheartened.

“It makes me want to just move, get out of the city,” said Tiffany Jones, a mother of two young children in Reservoir Hill, a neighborhood included in the precautionary boil-water advisory last week. “I think of going somewhere like pumping water out of the well or something.”

When Rochelle Webb heard on Labor Day about the discovery of E. coli at a fire station in her neighborhood, she wasn’t surprised.

She has long had enough doubts about Baltimore’s water to drink bottled water instead, and has often noted public works teams digging up pipes and replacing water mains around town.

“They spend a lot of time down there, but what are they doing?” she asked. “As long as you’ve got these old, rusty, 100-plus-year-old pipes, nothing is going to change. We’re going to keep having water issues.”

Ratepayers bear the cost of deteriorating infrastructure

At the same time as they incur the consequences of an underfunded system, ratepayers in these neighborhoods and across the city have had to bear some of the cost of the aging system themselves.

Water bills in Baltimore increased by 500% in the last two decades because of the rising cost of maintenance and improvements and decreasing federal funding, according to the civil rights report by the Maryland advisory committee.

“As the federal government has completely disinvested in and abandoned municipal water systems in terms of support or funding, municipalities have had to turn to rate increases to try to get more money to make the necessary infrastructure upgrades,” said Rianna Eckel, a Maryland organizer with nonprofit Food & Water Watch.

High rates can create a snowball effect: when rates increase, fewer people are able to keep up with their water bills, decreasing the revenue to the city and leading the city to increase rates. Persistent depopulation from the city has dragged down the number of ratepayers, too.

In June, the city Board of Estimates approved a much lower rate increase of 3.2% a year for the next three years.

At the same time, the public works department has struggled with its rate collection system for years. A joint report from the Baltimore City and Baltimore County inspectors general from December of 2020 found that the city has lost millions of dollars in water and sewer revenue over several years because of tens of thousands of dysfunctional water meters and thousands of unresolved “tickets” about problems in the county.

The report was prompted by the revelation that the Ritz Carlton Residences had not been billed by the city for approximately $2.3 million in water consumption bills since a meter was installed in 2007.

In a statement, Garbark said that while the 2020 inspectors general report included important details about the state of the city’s billing and metering systems, it also includes several “serious misconceptions.” The report relies on an underestimate of functioning water meters, Garbark said. It also assumes that meters with broken or obstructed data transmission are dysfunctional, when the Department of Public Works can still accurately bill according to usage information recorded on the meters themselves, he said.

In the past year, the agency has made a variety of improvements to its meters, customer relations and billing reviews, allowing the department to bill at least 99% of all accounts in the city each month, Garbark said. Those reforms, he said, have contributed to increased revenues and allowed for department’s smallest rate increase in the last three decades.

And in the next billing cycle, Baltimore ratepayers will get some relief: A few days into the boil-water advisory, Scott announced a 25% discount on water bills citywide — compensation for the five-day inconvenience.

For some, the concession comes as small consolation, especially given City Hall’s slow-footed response to the neighborhood crisis.

“‘We’ll give people a discount’ as opposed to just not having to pay a bill at all,” said Webb. “That should really be the compensation.”

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