Advocates to Monitor Baltimore Water Governance Inquiry 

Governor signs state legislation to continue study of regional water authority

Published May 9, 2024

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Clean Water

Governor signs state legislation to continue study of regional water authority

Governor signs state legislation to continue study of regional water authority

Baltimore, MD —  Today Governor Wes Moore signed legislation (HB1509) to establish the Baltimore Regional Water Governance Model Workgroup to continue to investigate regional governmental models for the water and sewer system over the next three years. Community groups are urging state and local officials to protect workers and residents by ensuring adequate due diligence and racial and economic equity throughout the process. 

Over the next three years, the new workgroup will continue the work of a task force that was established by the General Assembly last year to make a recommendation on the future of Baltimore City’s water and sewer system. After advocacy from the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition and allies, the workgroup will be barred from recommending any privately operated structure and will have two dedicated labor representatives, as the potential harm to workers remains a key outstanding risk of a governance change.

“It was a major victory to take water privatization off the table in Baltimore. As this new workgroup takes its time to study the future of the city’s water and sewer system, community advocates will keep a close eye to make sure that the voices of impacted Baltimore residents are heard,” said Food & Water Watch Southern Region Director Jorge Aguilar. “Local, transparent and democratic decision making can help ensure safe and affordable water for all Baltimoreans.”

For background, a previous task force that met last fall slowed down the rush into a regional authority, and as the advocates had advised from the beginning, it determined that it had insufficient time for due diligence to protect the public from unintended harm. That task force recommended that the state establish this new workgroup to resolve what it called “threshold issues” of a regional model, involving debt refinancing, racial equity impacts, and the workforce transition. 

The coalition has had long-standing concerns that a push to regionalize Baltimore City’s water and wastewater systems has not adequately taken into account the financial costs of such a move. Turning control over to a regional water authority could result in more than $2 billion in transaction costs, based on consultant estimates of debt refinancing costs and experience from Detroit. It could lead to large water bill hikes, water shutoffs, water privatization, and the loss of potentially thousands of unionized positions within city and county governments. 

The water and sewer system is the largest asset of Baltimore City, and a regional authority would take away decision making from the City’s majority Black elected officials. With more time to study the issue, the financial implications for the city, the county, and ratepayers in each district can be more fully taken into account when considering the future governance of the system.

The previous task force also identified that City residents pay substantially more for sewer and water service than county residents pay, and that county residents use substantially more water on average than city residents. 

“We look forward to participating in the conversation regarding the future of the water utility,” said Antoinette Ryan-Johnson, president of the city union of Baltimore, one of the unions representing hundreds of workers employed by either the city or the county to provide clean water services to residents in the region. “We anticipate Important discussions regarding equity and fairness in the distribution of these vital resources, and will work to be sure employee voices and rights are respected in the process.”

“While we welcome the signing of HB1509, which will form the new workgroup, we encourage it to meaningfully analyze the future of water governance, particularly for those affected, Baltimore City residents,” said Courtland Merkel, Consumer and Housing Staff Attorney with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “We expect that this workgroup will be more committed to water equity than last year’s task force. Unfortunately, that task force prioritized regional authority over City residents, but even they could not ignore the many documented problems with regionalization. Moving forward, this workgroup must be accountable to vulnerable residents. The workgroup must focus on racial and economic analysis for the residents of Baltimore City, not what’s best for those industries and agencies that stand to benefit from regionalization.” 

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Press Contact: Peter Hart [email protected]

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