Water, Water

Our View: Baltimore Needs More National Help To Rebuild Its Aging Water Systems And Avoid Future Deterioration And Leaks

April 30, 2009

We woke yesterday morning to a remarkable spectacle: water flooding downtown Baltimore, snarling traffic and cutting off water, electricity, telephone and Internet service to many center city businesses. To city residents, such breaks have become an all-too-frequent occurrence. There have been more than 5,000 breaks in the past four years. Earlier this year the rupture of a 30-inch pipe under East Monument Street disrupted performances at Center Stage, flooded the basement of a state building and a church, and forced the closure of sections of Calvert Street.

Such serious breaks signal a larger crisis. Every day the city loses enough water from leaks to fill the Baltimore World Trade Center. Replacing aging pipes is crucial to the city's economic future, but funds available are limited. Other cities are wrestling with similar problems, and Congress should help answer this national challenge soon by building a substantial water infrastructure renewal program.

The Baltimore Department of Public Works estimates the cost of needed work on the city's water, sewer and storm water systems at $2.2 billion. The Public Works Department has asked the Board of Estimates to increase city water bills by 9 percent to pay for a fraction of the needed pipe repairs, at an added cost of $74.52 a year for an average city household. The city is also seeking increases from customers in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties.

But even with sharply higher water costs to users, managers of water systems in cities like Baltimore will be hard pressed to rebuild their water systems. Continued deterioration is likely to cause public health concerns and growing economic disruption.

Over the next 20 years, our country's 54,000 drinking-water systems and 16,000 wastewater systems will require nearly $1 trillion in infrastructure improvements, experts estimate. The Environmental Protection Agency forecasts an $11 billion annual gap in meeting costs over that period.

Some members of Congress have proposed creation of a national infrastructure bank to help close that gap. Aggressive action to increase funding for critical infrastructure improvements would have a broader positive economic impact.

Terence O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers' union, says 47,500 jobs will be created for every $1 billion the government spends on infrastructure.

"Make no little plans," said Daniel Burnham, one of America's great urban architects. "They have no magic to stir men's blood." It's time to think big again.

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