At midnight on April 13, Maryland’s 2021 legislative session closed out with the passage of a law (House Bill 1069) that will provide meaningful drinking water protections for tenants who rely on well water. The measure, sponsored by Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery County), passed with bipartisan support in the Maryland Senate but faced hurdles in the House due to a last-minute filibuster attempt.
Public drinking water is regularly monitored and tested to meet certain safety standards set out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the Safe Drinking Water Act. The safety of drinking water from a private well or smaller community system, on the other hand, is solely up to the owner of that well or system.
In CPR’s recent report, fellow Policy Analyst Darya Minovi and I found that Maryland lags far behind most states in terms of protections for well owners and users, who make up about a third of Maryland’s overall population. The report assessed 10 key policies and programs that states have implemented to protect private well owners and found that Maryland is one of five states with the fewest protections.
The report, which also assessed nitrate contamination in groundwater on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore, also found that the health of Maryland well users is at risk — especially given that many residents may not be aware of the importance of regularly testing their well water.
To protect the health of roughly 2 million Marylanders, Stewart introduced House Bill 1069. In a recent hearing on the measure, he said, “Safe drinking water is a basic right, and we’ve got to ensure that all Marylanders have access to it. This bill is a small and sensible step in that direction.”
While the original bill was intended to establish a broader well safety program to protect all well users and owners, it was ultimately amended to reduce the measure’s potential cost.
Maryland’s new law requires landlords to:
- Test well water, through a state-approved laboratory, on any of their rental properties every three years and disclose the results to the existing tenant;
- Disclose the most recent well water quality testing results to any new tenant prior to signing the lease;
- Remediate contaminated well water within 60 days of testing;
- Provide a safe water supply to tenants until the contamination is remediated; and
- Notify Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the appropriate local county health department whenever unsafe levels of contamination are found.
The law comes with a civil penalty of up to $1,000 for landlords who fail to comply. It also requires MDE to submit a report to the General Assembly regarding any reports of contamination it receives.
This common-sense legislation seeks to protect renters or tenants who may not have control over the safety of their homes’ water supply but suffer the health consequences of possible contamination.
While this is a great win for Maryland tenants, the state must do more to provide safeguards for every person who relies on well water. Maryland legislators have expressed support for exploring a broader program in upcoming years. During a key Maryland Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee meeting, Chairman Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s County) voted in support of the measure with the idea to “entertain even sharper, tighter, more aggressive stuff in the next year or the year after.” He went on to say that without the passage of House Bill 1069, “harm might be taking place.”
Sen. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George’s County) conveyed that the measure did not go far enough in protecting tenants, but he ultimately voted in support of the bill “with the penalty and the fact that we are going to make this a top priority next year.”
Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard and Carroll Counties), who has been vocal in her support of the bill, stated, “At this point we have nothing. There is no reporting of private well water for renters. … This is a huge problem in the state. So I fully support this bill as a first step toward protecting people’s health.”
With the passage of this bill, Maryland joins New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and Maine in providing key drinking water protections for renters who rely on well water.