Tapping regional wealth

April 23, 2004

THE BALTIMORE water system delivers an average of 265 million gallons of drinking water every day via 3,400 miles of pipes and collects almost the same amount of wastewater through 3,100 miles of sanitary mains. Its rates have been among the nation's cheapest, and the quality of its water is regularly graded so highly that the city has decided to bottle it as a promotional item.

That's the good news for the system's 1.8 million customers in the city and in parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties.

The bad news is outlined by something the American Water Works Association calls the "Nessie Curve."

The curve, which rises like the back of the Loch Ness Monster, describes the huge jolt in costs that big, aging water systems all across the country are about to face as large portions of their pipes and facilities exhaust their natural lives and require replacement and upgrading. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the national tab for this infrastructure could run more than $500 billion over the next 20 years.

In the case of Baltimore's system, the federal government has already ordered the city to make $900 million worth of sewer improvements. Millions of dollars more are needed to be spent on the water side, which has endured a bad string of main breaks over the last year, including one leaving 200,000 northwest Baltimore County customers without tap water for two days last month. As a consequence, water and sewer rates are rising sharply - by 27 percent over the next three years for city residents.

Underlying this fiscal stress is a harsh demographic fact: The core burden of sustaining this system rests on a dwindling city population, even as the system is increasingly serving suburbanites. That's why we generally find appealing the concept - floated by Howard County Executive James N. Robey - of buttressing the city system with a regional authority by which the counties' wealth could be used to expand the system's capacity to finance needed big-ticket facilities.

A potential model for such a regional partnership is the 24-year-old Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, which assists in financing trash facilities that serve multiple jurisdictions and that are owned by various public and private entities. This would not force the city to cede control of its water system, city assets developed over the last 200 years. A wealth of complexities would have to be negotiated, but it's encouraging that Peggy Watson, Baltimore's finance director, says she's open to considering a detailed proposal.

In recent years, regionalism has gained much greater currency among Baltimore-area political leaders, driven by the need to span the growing gulf between the city and its suburbs. Regional leaders impressively united last year over a regional rail plan; now it's time to consider doing the same to strengthen the region's water system.

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