Baltimore Leads a City-Based Movement for Water Justice

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 4, 2019.
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Baltimore, Maryland, is on the verge of passing a landmark water bill, which would set a new water affordability standard in the United States. The Water Accountability and Equity Act, as it is known, would cap water bills for low-income residents at 3 percent of household income, provide a more reliable pathway out of water debt, and establish a new office to help resolve customer billing disputes.

The bill was introduced last December by City Council President Jack Young. Young is now serving as mayor, after Baltimore’s previous mayor Catherine Pugh resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal, and he’s said he’s eager to sign the popular legislation into law.

Philadelphia passed similar legislation in 2015. Philadelphia residents earning up to 150 percent of the poverty line are eligible for the city’s billing discount, while Baltimore’s legislation applies to those earning up to 200 percent. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently expressed support for an income-based water billing program in her city, and Detroit lawmakers may also follow suit.

When politicians discuss upgrading the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, attention is generally paid to roads, bridges, and tunnels. Water systems, despite their often deteriorating condition, tend to remain out of sight, out of mind. But the costs to repair them are formidable, not to mention the unprecedented strain that climate change has wrought on the nation’s sewage and water infrastructure. And as federal water regulations have grown stronger—without commensurate federal investment—that too comes with additional expense.

In Baltimore, as in many older cities, water rates have grown much faster than household income. The higher rates are intended to help finance needed infrastructure improvements to the city’s aging water and sewage systems. Advocates point to a standard set by the United Nations, which stipulates that water bills should not exceed 3 percent of a household’s income if they are to be considered affordable. With an average monthly water bill of $79.26 in 2018, many Baltimore residents paid well over 3 percent.

“Communities of color often have higher water burdens, which is driven both because their water bills are higher or high, and because their incomes are lower,” says Mary Grant, the Public Water for All Campaign Director at Food & Water Watch.

In May, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund published a study reporting that from 2010 to 2018, the cost of water in Baltimore increased by 127 percent. From 2014 to 2018 alone, annual Baltimore bills for water and wastewater service jumped 37 percent, from an average of $517.26 annually to $787.58. And the increases aren’t over yet. At the beginning of 2019, Baltimore approved yet another 30 percent increase over the next three years.

As rates have gone up, so has debt owed by water customers. According to a study published by an independent utility consultant in 2017, the number of neighborhoods in Baltimore where water bills are considered unaffordable has dramatically spiked across the city. Low-income households in more than half the city were projected to pay more than 10 percent of their income on water and sewer bills by 2020.

“Water has been a huge problem in the city for years, it is the thing that elected officials hear from constituents about the most,” says Molly Amster, the director of Baltimore Jews United for Justice, which supported the legislation. “It’s been so bad, so terribly mismanaged.”

In 2018, Baltimore became the first major city to pass legislation banning the privatization of the city’s water system. More than 77 percent of voters approved a charter amendment that declared Baltimore’s water system to be a permanent, inalienable asset of the city. Corporations had long sought to take control of the city’s water, and one company named Suez had recently been lobbying for a 50-year lease. City leaders can be tempted into selling off water systems and other public infrastructure by the prospect of a cash infusion that can paper over other funding needs.

Selling off all or some of Baltimore’s system would only exacerbate the water affordability crisis, advocates argued. A 2016 survey conducted by Food & Water Watch found that privately owned water systems charged 59 percent more than large publicly owned ones.

The idea for a new office to address consumer disputes as part of the Water Accountability and Equity Act was conceived of because customers have been subject to so many water billing mistakes, which sometimes amount to hundreds and thousands of dollars in erroneous charges. In 2018, for example, hundreds of Baltimoreans received bills of over $50,000. In 2012, the city had to refund nearly $9 million it overcharged residents and companies for water bills. Getting those mistakes corrected has proven to be a byzantine nightmare for many residents.

While advocates for the bill wanted the new Office of Water Customer Advocacy and Appeals to be completely independent from the city’s Department of Public Works, in the end local lawmakers decided that the new office would be housed within the existing public works agency. The goal is for the new office to take responsibility for handling water billing problems; prevent them from happening in the first place; and offer guidance on water rules, regulations, and policies.

The main opposition advocates faced was from the Department of Public Works, which initially resisted the legislation entirely and then unsuccessfully tried to water it down with last-minute amendments.

“Our only opposition to the bill was the Department of Public Works, which to put it bluntly didn’t see it as their responsibility to address this crisis and didn’t want to be legislated,” says Grant of Food & Water Watch. “We tried to meet with them for over two years, to try and bring them along and find common ground, but every time we tried reaching out we were met with resistance.” A spokesperson for the agency told The Baltimore Sun in late October it would no longer oppose the water billing reforms.

Though water costs for residents and local governments have gone up, federal support has gone down. An analysis from the Value of Water Campaign found combined federal investment in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure declined from 63 percent of total capital spending in 1977 to 9 percent today. One study published in 2017 estimated that the cost of water could rise by 41 percent over the next five years, with the percentage of U.S. households with unaffordable water bills potentially tripling.

To address the crisis on the federal level, advocates are organizing around a bill, the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability Act of 2019. This legislation would dedicate $35 billion for water infrastructure improvements across the country, and was introduced by U.S Senator Bernie Sanders in the Senate, and Representatives Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna in the House. It would be paid for by rolling back some of the Trump administration’s tax cuts.

While local bills like Baltimore’s can help provide much-needed immediate relief to struggling residents, advocates know they will not really be able to tackle the crisis without federal action.

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