Water Rates Likely to Increase
The Baltimore Sun
March 5, 2002 Tuesday
O'Malley notes federal mandate for sewer repairs;
Vote is next month;
Further increases expected yearly over next decade
Gady A. Epstein
Baltimore's water and sewer rates are expected to rise this year for the
fifth time in seven years, and may increase every year for much of the next decade as the
city faces the prospect of costly mandates from federal regulators, officials said
The O'Malley administration isrecommending a water rate increase of 16
percent and a sewer rate increase of 10 percent this year, which would translate into an
increase of about $57 a year for the average family of four in the city, to $518. The new
rates, scheduled to be voted on and approved next month, would affect about 1.8 million
water users and 1.6 million users of the city sewer system in the greater Baltimore area.
The city Board of Estimates is expected to vote after a public hearing
April 10 on this year's water and sewer rate increases. The rates would take effect April
11. And more increases are certain: Sewer rates could more than double over the next
decade, under force of an anticipated legal settlement being negotiated with regulators to
address numerous violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
The settlement, which could be reached within days, would compel sweeping
improvements of the sewer system at an estimated cost of $900 million.
"This is unfortunately the state of things. It's a federal
mandate," Mayor Martin O'Malley said last night. He has asked that the federal
government help shoulder the cost, but he has received no promises.
"I just have to shake my head that the federal government would be so
uncaring about the cost of this to the residents of the city," O'Malley said.
"You see, the way this thing works, the federal government does tax
cuts, the state government does tax cuts, and cities are forced to tax."
The city's nearly century-old sewers have long been troubled by overflows
that have dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department, joined by state
regulators, have threatened to file a lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act unless the
city agrees to fix those problems quickly.
Regulators have proposed that the city make the improvements in less than
a decade, but at a meeting Feb. 15, O'Malley pleaded for more time, which would allow for
smaller rate increases.
On Friday, the latest deadline from regulators, the city made a
counterproposal, O'Malley said. The mayor said he hasn't heard back yet.
"We all know we need to do the work," O'Malley said. "We
would like to be able to settle it in such a way that people aren't gouged over the next
few years to pay for an infrastructure improvement that's going to last 50 or 60
The EPA and Justice Department typically use the threat of lawsuits and
heavy fines to force cities to fix dilapidated sewer systems that pose environmental and
public health hazards. Several other cities, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Miami and
Toledo, Ohio, have faced similar enforcement actions.
The city's sewer system, much of which was built in the early 20th
century, carries more than 200 million gallons of waste and water through about 3,000
miles of pipes. This underground flow of waste generally runs downhill to two treatment
plants, on the Back and Patapsco rivers.
But the aging system has been afflicted by leaks, spills and overflow
problems, polluting waterways such as the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls and Herring Run. Some
sewer pipes that feed the city's system also take in rainwater, which can lead to
overflows during heavy storms that force the diversion of sewage directly into waterways.
Federal officials have said the settlement would be a detailed,
comprehensive plan to correct all of the sewer system's problems, including inadequate
capacity in some areas, sewage overflows caused by the failure of old or poorly maintained
equipment, and chronic leaks.
In anticipation of the settlement, the city is preparing to more than
double the amount it can borrow to pay for sewer projects, and O'Malley said yesterday
that the state has agreed to help cut borrowing costs by using its ability to issue bonds
at lower interest rates.
The administration has proposed an ambitious list of sewer projects for
the next four years totaling $714 million - about $550 million more than the department
spent in the past four years. In the next fiscal year alone, the city is expected to spend
$110 million on sewer projects, much of which will pay for replacing pipes.
The city also has costly water projects planned, including improvements at
its treatment plants to meet federal drinking water mandates, city officials said, and the
rehabilitation of the Loch Raven Dam. Some projects have been added since Sept. 11 to
bolster security, including safety improvements to the city's water filtration plants.
With more water improvement projects planned in the coming years at the
urging of regulators, officials said, residents can expect to see annual increases in not
just sewer rates but also water rates.
"The ability for people to pay these increases concerns me, because
as rates increase, people's salaries are not necessarily increasing," City Council
President Sheila Dixon said. "This is going to be a tough pill to swallow."