‘I’m scared to give it to my kids’: Baltimore’s water issues are symptoms of a growing national problem


The federal government has made a “very long bid” to invest in water infrastructure. Chief Michael Regan told the New York News in an interview.

BALTIMORE – For Gloria Johnson, getting the water she trusts is an ordeal. Every month, the mother of two boils tap water and cooks for her family. Although Baltimore’s drinking water meets federal safety standards. The water that comes out of its faucets is sometimes brown. A sign iron may have leached from age-old pipes beneath its buildings or streets.

“You’re helping your kids with homework, cooking, trying to get ready for bed,” Johnson said.

“It’s frustrating because we have to put it up every single day.”

As federal investment in water infrastructure has declined over the years. America’s cities’ infrastructure for drinking, waste. And stormwater has deteriorated. This was evident in Baltimore last September. When tests showed E. coli in the drinking water at three locations in West Baltimore. revealed the presence of Coley, a predominantly black. And low-income neighborhood City officials determined. That a cascade of infrastructure failures caused the contamination.
The federal government has “waited too long” to invest in water infrastructure. US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Reagan told NBC News in an interview. “Unfortunately, there are certain populations in this country, black and brown communities. Tribal communities, low-income communities, who are seeing the worst aspects of this investment.”

Last year, the EPA granted Maryland $144 million to fund water infrastructure projects. Across the state as part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Act. Which allocated more than $50 billion to improve drinking, waste. And stormwater infrastructure across the country. The EPA also announced that Baltimore, a city that is more than 60 percent black. Will receive more than $390 million to fund water infrastructure projects.

Reagan, who has spent the past year in. Communities struggling with water infrastructure crises. Including Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia — acknowledged the need is great.

'I'm scared to give it to my kids' Baltimore's water issues are symptoms of a growing national problem (1)

“The resources we have from the bill are just a shot in the arm.” He said, adding that the nation needs billions more in public. And private investment to fully modernize the fragile water system.

“No community should ever experience what Flint [Michigan] experienced,” he said. “No community should ever have to go through what Jackson. Mississippi is going through right now. We have to have a proactive strategy to prevent cities from getting to that point.”

‘You have to keep investing’
One of the most important techniques for treating drinking water. Was developed in Baltimore.

In the early 1900s, when waterborne diseases like typhoid regularly sickened Americans. Johns Hopkins graduate and engineer Abel Wollman developed a way to determine. The most accurate amount of chlorine to treat drinking water. This was a huge breakthrough for public health. As water treatment systems in Baltimore and elsewhere adopted the formula. Such diseases declined rapidly. Engineers also envision building separate wastewater and drinking water infrastructure in Baltimore.

“The city has always prided itself on having good drinking water. As it was originally designed to do,” said Natalie Exum. An environmental health scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But you can’t rest on these laurels forever. You have to keep investing.”

Although Baltimore’s drinking water is considered safe as it leaves its treatment plants. That water is flowing through a system in disarray. The average age of Baltimore’s aqueduct is about 75 years. Weather events regularly overwhelm the system, causing sinkholes.

That can lead to water main breaks and sewer backups in homes.

Such backups often occur after heavy rains when storms. And groundwater flood the city’s aging network of pipes. Said Alice Volpitta, a water-quality scientist. And Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper at Blue Water Baltimore. An environmental nonprofit group. A 2018 study found that these backups are more likely to occur in neighborhoods. With a higher proportion of black residents.

Wastewater infrastructure failures have also landed the city in trouble. With state and federal regulators. In 2002 Baltimore entered into a consent decree with the EPA. The US Department of Justice, and the Maryland Department of the Environment. Requiring repairs to the city’s public sewer infrastructure. Last year, the state also conducted. Operations at one of the city’s wastewater treatment plants. After inspectors found that partially treated. Sewage had been released into local waterways, outside permitted limits. Blue Water Baltimore filed a federal lawsuit against Baltimore in late 2021 over the matter.

Valpitta said modernizing its water infrastructure is one of the city’s most pressing needs.

“If we don’t have a functioning pipe system under our feet, we don’t have a functioning city,” he said.

“These infrastructure failures are occurring in places. Where there has been a historical lack of investment,” he added. “So where we see sinkholes or water main breaks, those are places where we haven’t put dollars in the ground.”

Last September, as residents of Jackson, Mississippi—another majority black city. Suffered from the collapse of their city’s drinking water system. Baltimore’s own water woes made headlines. Due to the collapse of two separate sinkholes, a stormwater tunnel. And a leaky water main, chlorination levels in the water system have decreased. Tests then revealed the presence of E. Coli. At three drinking water sampling sites in West Baltimore.

The crisis was short-lived — the city issued a boil water advisory that lasted less than a week. But many residents felt panicked.

At a City Council meeting later that month. Jason Mitchell, director of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works. The city’s water utility, said some of the water lines. And valves that were compromised had been installed as far back as 1898.

“It was a result of aging infrastructure,” he said. “Something that this city and all older cities are dealing with.”

Matthew Garberk, who oversees the city’s infrastructure projects. Said the threat of a similar public health crisis happening again. “Is one of the concerns of all utilities.”

Just two months later, the collapse of another stormwater tunnel. Built in the 1880s created a sinkhole near a water treatment plant. Potentially compromising the city’s water main.

Such emergencies can keep utilities from making proactive upgrades, Gerberk said.

“It’s a tremendous challenge,” Gerberk said. “We can predict, we can expect. We can expect that we plan for maintenance, preventive maintenance. Capital improvements where it’s needed. But water main breaks can happen anywhere.

Each year the EPA distributes federal funds for waste. And drinking water infrastructure through state “revolving funds.” That provide low-interest and forgivable loans as well as grants. That funding has been critical for Baltimore: Over the past 20 years. The city has received nearly $2 billion through Maryland’s revolving fund. And through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program. A federal credit program administered by the EPA.

But the $50 billion earmarked in the bipartisan infrastructure. Act for water infrastructure development represents. The federal government’s single largest investment in water. The dollars will be used to install new infrastructure, replace lead service lines. And clean up emerging contaminants in water like PFAS, among other projects. EPA specifically directed states to rank projects in historically disadvantaged communities


In Baltimore the funds will be used to upgrade key components. The city’s water distribution and wastewater treatment facilities

Continued federal investment, Gerberk said. “is the only way we can really modernize and stabilize this thing.”

“We need more than that to be the best maintenance system we need,” he added.

‘across the country’
Even those billions are a drop in the bucket.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Ranked the nation’s water infrastructure at C minus. According to its latest report. According to the group, there is a water main break every two minutes. And an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water is wasted in the U.S. every day.

Water infrastructure is inherently expensive to build and maintain. Says Upamanu Lal, a civil engineer and director of Columbia University’s Water Center. According to the EPA’s own estimates, the nation’s drinking. And wastewater infrastructure will must more than $744 billion over the next 20 years. Just to meet existing health and environmental standards.

He said the country’s water infrastructure problems are not uncommon. Because the federal government’s share of capital investment. In water infrastructure has declined sharply over the past five decades.

According to ASCE, the federal government’s share of capital spending. On the water sector fell from 63% in 1977 to about 9% of total capital spending by 2017. This placed much of the responsibility for raising. funds on state and local governments. And left water utility managers to cope with aging water systems by delaying upgrades. As much as possible and funding upgrades behind ratepayers.

“It’s no surprise when you look across the country, it’s the smaller communities. That are in trouble,” Lal said. “And the other problem areas are the somewhat larger cities. That have become overpopulated.”

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