Our Latest Victories in the Fight for Water Justice in Baltimore

Published May 31, 2024

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Clean Water

With our allies on the ground, Food & Water Watch is celebrating two big wins protecting clean, affordable, public water in Baltimore, MD.

With our allies on the ground, Food & Water Watch is celebrating two big wins protecting clean, affordable, public water in Baltimore, MD.

For nearly a decade, Food & Water Watch and our allies in the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition have advocated for a more equitable water and sewer system in the region. This coalition of social justice, labor, and environmental groups has worked with the City’s elected officials toward wins for water affordability and justice, including the groundbreaking Water Accountability and Equity Act

Despite these advances, much more work must be done. Unfortunately, because of serious treatment facility failures, some County officials advanced the false narrative that the City cannot run its own water system. They’ve pushed a major governance change that could harm, in particular, Balitmore’s low-income and Black residents. More recently, State legislators also sought to undo the progress we’ve made to prevent people from losing their homes over water bills. 

Lawmakers were posed to advance these two harmful proposals this spring. This is how we and our allies stopped them, winning major victories to protect Baltimore’s right to water. 

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Fighting a Rushed Effort to Wrestle Baltimore’s Water Out of Local Control

For years, Baltimore County officials sought to establish a new regional water authority, which would snatch control of Baltimore’s water from the City’s majority-Black elected officials, giving more power to the County’s majority-white suburban leaders. We’ve already seen this play out in Detroit.

Last year, the Maryland legislature established a task force to study a regional model. It hired consultants who pushed for a transition that could have cost residents an outrageous $2.5 billion. Their plan would have also opened the door to private for-profit operation, taking away public accountability and local democracy from the water system.

We knew this would be terrible for Baltimoreans, so we jumped into action. Throughout the task force process, Food & Water Watch joined social justice and labor allies including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, and the City Union of Baltimore to highlight problems with the potential new authority; especially how the plan was rushing ahead with so many equity, legal, and economic questions still unanswered. 

As a result, at the task force’s final meeting this past January, many members, particularly those representing Baltimore City, echoed many of our concerns. The task force ultimately rejected the rush into a regional authority — a testament to the Coalition’s work.

Ensuring the State Keeps Baltimore’s Water in Public Hands

At the task force’s recommendation, state lawmakers then introduced a bill to create a three-year workgroup to further study a regional governance structure, including a required equity analysis that we’d long advocated for.   

But it missed a key piece: a ban on privatization. In 2018, because of the Coalition’s work, Baltimore became the first major U.S. city to ban water privatization. A regional authority threatened this protection. 

At hearings and meetings throughout the past few months, we educated lawmakers about the dangers of privatization and why a ban was necessary. We also supported our labor allies, ensuring workers had dedicated seats in the new workgroup. 

Our work paid off — when the governor signed the final bill into law in April, it included both of these protections. While we celebrate this victory, we will continue working to ensure more residents will have a say in the future of Baltimore’s water.

Food & Water Watch with allies as Governor Wes Moore signs HB 1509 into law, establishing the Baltimore Regional Water Governance Model Workgroup. Photo by the Executive Office of the Governor.

State Lawmakers Threaten Baltimoreans With Losing Their Homes Over Water Debt

As we fought to protect democratic governance of Baltimore’s water system, lawmakers in the State House sought to remove protections that currently prohibit foreclosures and evictions for unpaid water bills.  

Just five years ago, the City was aggressively putting properties up for tax sale. It sold the homes, and even the churches, of Baltimore families over water bills, which were often wrong or disputed. At that time, we won protections against this ugly practice when the state passed the Water Taxpayer Protection Act of 2019. Because of this legislation, no Baltimore home or place of worship can be sold at tax sale because of water debt.  

Food & Water Watch and allies celebrate the passage of the Water Taxpayer Protection Act into law in 2019.

This year, Governor Moore’s administration introduced a bill seeking to extend Baltimore’s protections to all Maryland families. In an ironic twist, however, Delegates Regina Boyce and Dalya Attar amended that bill to remove protections for many Baltimoreans, at the urging of the tax sale industry. This risked foreclosures and evictions across the city.

Moving Fast and Coming Together to Preserve Protections

We discovered this threat only just before it passed in the House. In fact, many of the delegates who voted for it in the House didn’t know about the bad amendments that had been slipped in.  

We knew we had to stop it in the State Senate, which meant pressuring Baltimore City Senators and the Senators in the Budget and Taxation committee to oppose the bill. 

So we sent flurries of texts and calls, urging Baltimore constituents to sign petitions and call their Senators to ask them to oppose the bill. With our allies from an anti-tax sale workgroup, we also organized a press event with 10 other organizations calling on lawmakers to put Baltimore renters and low-income families before tax buyers. This group then visited several Senate offices together to show the massive opposition to the bill.  

In the final weeks of the legislative session, we pressed the Baltimore City Delegation to work together to oppose the bill or remove the bad language. Due to this pressure, the chair of a key committee pulled it from a final vote three times. 

In the end, these delays helped run out the clock on the session. On the last day, it failed to pass. Thanks to our combined efforts, no Baltimorean will lose their home over water debt. 

We’re Continuing the Fight for Safe, Affordable Water for Every Baltimorean

Water is a human right — we all need it for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and so many more essential daily tasks. However, in Baltimore (and across the country), families are unable to realize this right. They face unsafe water, unaffordable rates, and threats to yank water away from public hands and oversight.

Our recent work in Baltimore shows the progress we can make by building broad coalitions and mobilizing everyday people. This year, our tireless organizing helped defend Baltimore from water injustice. But our work isn’t over.

Looking ahead, we are committed to ensuring affordable rates and making the City’s water system more accountable to the residents it serves. We aim to work with the Governor and legislators to keep water access top-of-mind and enshrine protections against shutoffs and tax sales. As the new workgroup begins working on solutions to the City’s water problem, Food & Water Watch will continue fighting to protect water as a human right for all.

We need federal funding to ensure safe, affordable water for everyone. Tell your representative to support the WATER Act!

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