Lawmakers and activists seek remedies to make clean drinking water more accessible and affordable

A new report details skyrocketing water bills in Maryland and across the United States, and the threat these skyrocketing bills pose to residents with access to clean, affordable water.

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For nearly seven years, Barnes Memorial Church in northeast Baltimore was in danger of bankruptcy. That’s because the church owed the city about $7,000 in water bills. It took years for the church to navigate the legal system and city bureaucracy to settle its debts, avoid foreclosures, and secure its financial future.

Bishop Mark James, pastor of the church, recalls:

It’s not just the Barnes Memorial. Across the state, residents regularly face service outages, and worse, because they can’t pay their water bills.

But Maryland lawmakers are looking to do something about it. Armed with new reports of skyrocketing water bills in Maryland and across the U.S. and the threat those skyrocketing prices pose to state residents with access to clean, affordable water, lawmakers on Wednesday called for a legislative bailout and support from Governor Larry Hogan (Republican). ) and the federal government to protect what they call basic human rights.

“People without access to clean or affordable water are considered homeless,” said Mary Washington State Senator (D., Baltimore). “It has accelerated the decline of urban minority neighborhoods and is an obstacle to community revitalization.”

The report, published a few weeks ago, is from the Maryland Advisory Board to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. All 50 states have advisory boards to strong commissions, and Maryland members use the Civil Rights Commission’s authorization to shine a spotlight on water affordability and accessibility issues. I decided to.

What they found disappointed them. Access to water varies widely within the state, according to the study, and there is no government mechanism to ensure that Marylanders have equal access to safe, affordable drinking water. States and water utilities have a patchwork of programs designed to help struggling residents pay their bills, but there are no consistent fail-safes. disproportionately affected by rising water prices and punitive practices by water utilities seeking to collect unpaid bills, access to water has become a civil rights issue that has become a public health challenge. will be

“People can lose their homes,” said Kendra Brown, chair of the Maryland Advisory Board. We have to find out what it is like.”

Brown, a former congressional employee of Bowie and now vice president of public policy at MasterCard Worldwide Inc., said lawmakers, other members of the committee’s advisory group, and community activists were reporting to reporters outside the House office building. I attended the conference. Annapolis on Wednesday. Her two Maryland legislators, Rep. Sarah Love (D-Montgomery) and Rep. Jocelyn Peña Melnik (D-Prince George), are among him members of the advisory group.

The commission’s study found that water bills have risen at three times the rate of inflation nationwide over the past decade, far outpacing household income growth. Advocates and lawmakers attribute this trend to a variety of factors, including the fact that Maryland’s water supply is largely unregulated.

Some small private water utilities are regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission, which oversees electric and gas utilities, but the City of Baltimore has its own water utilities that serve the city and Baltimore County. is operating. Montgomery and Prince George counties fall under the jurisdiction of the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission. The Commission has its own governing structure, but there are also many staff turmoil and political infighting. Also, many homes in Maryland use well water.

A Civil Rights Commission report recommends ending the taxation of water subsidies as income at the federal and state levels. Pass the Federal Water Affordability, Transparency, Fairness, and Reliability Act to create a water infrastructure trust fund that can provide $35 billion annually to the nation’s water and wastewater systems. Maryland passed measures to end the practice of water closures and tax liens on bill delinquent residents, creating a tariff based on water user income.

Peña-Melnik, chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said in an interview that he hopes the committee will consider at least some of these recommendations at its 2023 plenary session. Washington said it is considering steps to create a Maryland version of the Federal Clean Water Act.

“In Maryland, we advocate for clean water and are known for the importance of having clean water. [Chesapeake] Bay,” she said. But there is a chasm between her clean water ideals and her ability to deliver it uniformly to Maryland homes, she added.

All speakers at Wednesday’s Annapolis press conference said clean, affordable water is a basic human right as defined by the United Nations.

Shannon Mouton, Executive Director of Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, a non-profit organization that works with struggling families, regularly witnesses the devastation it wreaks on families unable to pay their water bills. Said there was

“We all said water is a human right, and more. Clean, affordable water is a moral imperative,” she said. “Without water, people die. What does it say about us that we can’t guarantee affordable water service to our citizens about the house I grew up in?”

Baltimore pastor James is helping his 84-year-old grandmother while his church deals with its own water crisis, and she must decide whether to pay medical bills or keep the water running. said no. Now that he and his congregation have learned how easily Maryland’s water service can be robbed, “we will forever be water activists,” he said.

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