The Baltimore County Council is calling for the creation of a regional water authority to oversee management of the city-owned system and to address critical and costly infrastructure needs.
The authority would represent the city and the surrounding counties that rely on municipal resources for the drinking water the city supplies daily to nearly 2 million customers. The County Council unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution earlier this month that asks the state and other jurisdictions to "investigate the feasibility of creating an independent water and sewer management authority to handle the region's needs."
"The staggering cost of maintaining, rehabilitating and replacing the system is better served by regional management, not one solely operated by the city," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who sponsored the resolution.
He said he will push for "a regional management approach that would allow Baltimore County to fully participate in decisions related to its water."
The city owns the aging infrastructure that pumps water from three reservoirs, treats it at three filtration plants and delivers about 265 million gallons a day to customers in the city as well as in Baltimore, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.
"This is a resolution to talk about setting up an authority," said Celeste Amato, spokeswoman for the city's Department Of Public Works. "It would be a complicated discussion on a complex issue. There are so many aspects to dealing with existing partners on a system that has been in place for decades."
The city meets regularly with its regional partners and coordinates infrastructure improvements with them, Amato said.
"There is already coordination and conversation," Amato said. "We are already managing the system together in a lot of ways."
Pipes that date to 1924, when the city water system came on line, are failing at an alarming rate, disrupting homes and businesses and taxing the city's ability to repair the lines quickly.
"Pipes are reaching their natural shelf life," said Kamenetz. "We are relying on city employees to fix problems in the county. Even down to fire hydrant repairs, county residents depend on city public works for repairs."
City crews respond as quickly as possible, wherever a break happens.
"We rush to these incidents as quickly as possible," Amato said. "We deliver to 1.8 million customers, and we don't distinguish between them. Some breaks are decidedly more difficult, but we work 24/7 until the water is back on, regardless of where they occur."
According to the city's annual water quality report, public works crews dealt with more than 1,100 water main breaks last year. In most cases, old, patched and fragile pipes caused the breaks, the report says.
Five major breaks have occurred in Baltimore County this year. A burst water main in the northwestern area in March cut off water to homes, businesses and schools for several days.
"That was a 36-inch main that broke in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night," Amato said. "Crews had to cut down trees and build a road to get to the site."
The city-owned reservoirs are all located in Baltimore County, which, Kamenetz said, is a compelling reason for the county to take a more active role in the future of the water supply. The Loch Raven and Prettyboy watersheds spread across nearly 16,000 acres in the northern area of the county. Liberty Reservoir, the city's third surface water source, straddles the line between Baltimore and Carroll counties.
The city has budgeted about $500 million to maintain, rebuild and improve its water distribution system during the next six years. But city officials warn that disruptions in service are always possible.
Establishing a metropolitan water authority would be the responsibility of the General Assembly. Kamenetz, who is leaving the council at the end of his fourth term and running for Baltimore County executive, said he wants to start a dialogue with legislators now and initiate a review of the entire water system before the session convenes in January.
Sign up for Baltimore Sun local news text alerts