This op-ed originally ran in the Baltimore Sun.
The full scope of the heartbreaking devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma — the human, economic and environmental toll — may not be completely understood for years. As we do what we can to help the victims, it is also time to think about how we can prepare for the inevitable here in Baltimore. After all, Baltimore floods more than most other cities in the United States and gets little help from our inadequate water infrastructure.
Every time a major storm visits our region, millions of gallons of sewage overflow from Baltimore’s antiquated sewers. Worse, our sewer system has failed time and again under even the smallest rainfalls. In August, federal, state and city regulators and lawyers finalized a deal to modify the legal settlement originally signed in 2002 to upgrade sewer infrastructure by 2016.
The good news is that the projects needed to keep sewage from flowing into our basements and the Inner Harbor are some of the same ones needed to prepare for tropical storms. Modern stormwater management technology provides us with the ability to make our city “spongier” — to absorb rain and slow down polluted runoff before it pools in streets, overwhelms storm drains, damages property and spills into local waters.
But an important question is how we’ll pay for the work. Arguably, the primary reason that Baltimore failed to finish required sewer upgrades by 2016 was a lack of funding. However, a review of the city’s past capital spending plans shows that Baltimore’s water infrastructure spending has increased dramatically since 2002, with much of these costs shouldered by ratepayers.
Thanks to local advocates like Blue Water Baltimore, residents whose basements are ruined by sewer backups may soon have help. The modified consent decree now provides those impacted by backups with at least a small measure of relief (though a maximum of $2,500 is not enough to fully compensate most affected households). However, all residents of Baltimore, particularly low-income households, also need relief from the constant pressure of ever-increasing water and sewer rates.
Why is it that we treat the cost of providing clean and safe water differently than other core municipal services? No one would argue that water isn’t among the most essential human needs. So, perhaps what is needed is a new way of paying for our water infrastructure, one consistent with the notion that water is essential for life and a basic human right.