Baltimore City and Baltimore County officials are taking the first step toward revamping the region’s troubled system that provides drinking water and treats wastewater for millions of residents in the region.

Mayor Brandon M. Scott and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced a plan Tuesday to create a task force to study the water and sewer system and come up with recommendations for how the system should be owned, run and managed.

They’re working with state lawmakers and Gov. Wes Moore’s administration on legislation in the General Assembly that would create the task force and require recommendations by next January.

“Our goal is to make this a modern, best-in-class utility structure that best serves our residents,” Olszewski said during a press conference in Annapolis Tuesday afternoon.

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Olszewski stressed the system needs to be efficient and effective at delivering safe drinking water and treating wastewater, as well as being “affordable and attainable” for residents.

Olszewski and Scott, both Democrats, stressed that their two teams are working together on the issue, rather than pointing fingers at who is responsible. The city owns the reservoirs, water treatment plants and wastewater plants, but both jurisdictions have responsibility for funding the system.

They said the current agreement for the operation of the water system, which is enshrined in state law, dates to the early 1970s — well before Olszewski and Scott were born.

This new look at how the system is run comes less than a year after Maryland environmental regulators wrested control of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is located in Dundalk but managed by the city, and found that “catastrophic failures” at the plant discharged large amounts of sewage into Back River. The Maryland Department of the Environment also found similar problems persist at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The question of whether oversight of the utility system, which also serves parts of Carroll, Howard and Harford counties, should change hands has lingered for years amid its dysfunction. Shortly after nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore filed a lawsuit in December 2021 against the city over the Back River plant’s excessive sewer leakage, Olszewski. publicly signaled his desire for the county to have “a seat at the table” when it comes to water and wastewater maintenance.

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But a 2021 consultant report commissioned by the city and county found the jurisdictions don’t regularly communicate, and recommended a regional water authority to better coordinate water service to the system’s roughly 1.8 million homes and businesses — the majority of which are in Baltimore County.

City customers have been sent outrageous usage bills — or no bills at all — due to faulty meter readings over the last decade. In the county, a 2020 joint report from the city and county inspectors general found thousands of water meter repair requests that had been unresolved for more than a year, in spite of costly system upgrades meant to resolve the issue. The broken meters resulted in lower county reimbursement to the city, the inspectors general found.

Asked whether the task force would address how to solve billing problems, Scott responded that billing errors have decreased over the past two years. But he also noted when the city is doing billing “the same way that you were doing it in 1995,” it’s prone to problems, and modernizing the system would help.

Baltimore County elected officials have complained of water main breaks on county roads over the years and a lack of communicate from city public works. Last summer, Olszewski agreed to pay $3 million to resolve a yearslong dispute with the city over millions of dollars in water usage fees the city said it was owed. Yet, Baltimore County Council-proposed resolutions supporting the creation of a regional water authority have withered on the vine.

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The county and city’s water service agreement is unique for a metropolitan area of their size. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, for instance, are served by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which includes commissioners appointed by both jurisdictions.

The city built its water system when more residents lived in Baltimore than its suburban counterpart, but that’s no longer the case as the county’s population continues to grow.

Scott and Olszewski were joined in Annapolis by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the city and the county. They said the bill will be sponsored by Sen. Jill P. Carter, who chairs the Baltimore City’s Senate delegation; Sen. Charles Sydnor, who chairs the county’s Senate delegation; Del. Eric Ebersole, who chairs the county’s House Delegation; and Del. Stephanie Smith, who chairs the city’s House delegation.

Serena McIlwain, Moore’s nominee for secretary of the environment, also spoke in support of the legislation.

Under the legislation, the task force would be composed of 15 people: five appointed by the mayor, three appointed by the county executive, two appointed by the governor, one senator, one state delegate and one person from the suburbs appointed by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. Their recommendations would be due next January.

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Officials from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who observed the press conference noted that there was no mention of updating the staffing, training and operations of the wastewater treatment plants, which has contributed to the problems at Back River.

Doug Myers, the bay foundation’s Maryland senior scientist, said he hopes the final version of the bill will include language requiring the task force to consider staffing and training.

“The building’s important, the infrastructure is important, but that’s not all it takes to keep a system like this running,” he said.

Overall, though, Myers said he’s optimistic that the task force represents “the beginning of a new chapter” for the water and wastewater system.

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