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

The federal government has “waited too long” to invest in water infrastructure, EPA chief Michael Regan told NBC News in an interview.

BALTIMORE — For Gloria Johnson, getting water that she trusts is an ordeal. Every month, the mother of two boils gallons of tap water for her family to drink and cook with. Though Baltimore’s drinking water meets federal safety standards, the water coming out of her tap is sometimes brown — a sign iron may be leaching from aging pipes, whether in her building or under the street.

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

“It’s frustrating because we’ve got to keep up with this every single day.”

As federal investment in water infrastructure has dwindled over the years, the infrastructure in America’s cities for drinking, waste and stormwater has deteriorated. That was made evident last September in Baltimore, when tests revealed the presence of E. coli in the drinking water in three sites in West Baltimore, a predominantly Black and low-income area. City officials determined the contamination was caused by a cascade of infrastructure failures.

Gloria Johnson stands in her kitchen in southwest Baltimore.
Gloria Johnson stands in her kitchen in southwest Baltimore.Michelle Cho / NBC News

The federal government has “waited too long” to invest in water infrastructure, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan told NBC News in an interview. “Unfortunately, there are certain populations in this country, Black and brown communities, tribal communities, low-income communities, that are seeing the worst aspects of this disinvestment.”

Last year, the EPA granted Maryland $144 million to finance water infrastructure projects across the state as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which set aside 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, would receive more than $390 million to finance water infrastructure projects.

Construction workers repair water infrastructure in Baltimore.
Construction workers repair water infrastructure in Baltimore.Michelle Cho / NBC News

Regan, who has spent the past year visiting communities struggling with water infrastructure crises — including in Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia — acknowledged that the need is much greater.

“The resources that 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 vulnerable water systems.

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

‘You have to continue to invest’

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 Wolman co-developed a way to determine the most accurate amount of chlorine needed to treat drinking water. It was a huge advance for public health: As water treatment systems in Baltimore and elsewhere adopted the formula, such diseases dropped precipitously. Engineers also had the forethought to build separate waste and drinking water infrastructure in Baltimore.

“The city has always prided itself on good drinking water, because of the way it was originally designed,” said Natalie Exum, an environmental health scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But you can’t rest on those laurels forever. You have to continue to invest.”

Though Baltimore’s drinking water is considered safe as it leaves its treatment plants, that water is being flushed through a system in disarray. The average age of Baltimore’s water mains is about 75 years. Weather events routinely overwhelm the system, causing sinkholes that can lead to water main breaks and sewer backups in homes.

Construction workers repair water infrastructure in Baltimore.
Construction workers repair water infrastructure in Baltimore.Michelle Cho / NBC News

Such backups happen often after periods of heavy rainfall when storm and groundwater floods into the city’s aging network of pipes, said Alice Volpitta, a water-quality scientist and Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper with 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 U.S. Department of Justice and Maryland’s Department of the Environment, requiring the city to repair its public sewer infrastructure. Last year, the state also took over operations at one of the city’s wastewater treatment plants, after inspectors found that partially treated sewage had been discharged into local waterways, far beyond permitted limits. Blue Water Baltimore filed a federal lawsuit against Baltimore in late 2021 over the issue. 

Modernizing its water infrastructure is one of the city’s most pressing needs, Volpitta said.

“If we don’t have working pipe systems under our feet, we don’t have a functioning city,” she said.

“Those infrastructure failures are happening in places where there has been a historic lack of investment,” she added. “So where we see sinkholes or water main breaks, those are areas where we haven’t put the dollars in the ground.”

Last September, as residents in Jackson, Mississippi — another majority Black city — were reeling from the collapse of their city’s drinking water system, Baltimore’s own water woes were thrust into the headlines. Two separate sinkholes, caused by the collapse of a stormwater tunnel and a leaking water main, led chlorination levels in the water system to drop. Tests then revealed the presence of E. coli in 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.

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

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

Matthew Garbark, who oversees the city’s infrastructure projects, said that the threat of a similar public health crisis happening again is “one of the worries of all utilities.”

Just two months later, the collapse of another stormwater tunnel, built in the 1880s, caused a sinkhole to form near a water treatment plant — potentially compromising a city water main.

Those kinds of emergencies can keep utilities from making proactive upgrades, Garbark said.

“It’s a tremendous challenge,” Garbark said. “We can predict, we can think, we can hope that we are planning for maintenance, preventative maintenance, capital improvements in areas that need it. But water main breaks can happen anywhere.”

The water treatment plant in Kimball, W.V.
The water treatment plant in Kimball, W.Va., which serves over 300 residents in McDowell County. EPA

Every year the EPA distributes federal funding for waste and drinking water infrastructure through state “revolving funds” that issue 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 funds and through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, a federal credit program administered by the EPA.

But the $50 billion that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside for water infrastructure improvements represents the single largest investment in water the federal government has ever made. The dollars will be used to lay new infrastructure, replace lead service lines and clean up emerging contaminants in water, such as PFAS, among other projects. The EPA has specifically directed states to prioritize projects in historically disenfranchised communities.

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

Continued federal investment, Garbark said, is “the only way that we can really get this stuff modernized and fixed.”

“We need a lot more than that to get us really to be the best maintained system that we need,” he added.

‘All across the country’

Even those billions are a drop in the bucket.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) ranks the nation’s water infrastructure at a C minus, according to its most recent report. There is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water is lost each day in the U.S., according to the group.

Water infrastructure is inherently expensive to build and maintain, said Upmanu Lall, a civil engineer and director of Columbia University’s Water Center. By the EPA’s own estimates, the nation’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure will require more than $744 billion over the next 20 years, just to meet existing health and environmental standards.

The nation’s water infrastructure woes are due in no small part to the fact that the federal government’s share of capital investment in water infrastructure has sharply declined over the past five decades, he said.

The federal government’s share of capital spending in the water sector fell from 63% in 1977 to about 9% of total capital spending by 2017, according to the ASCE. That’s laid most of the responsibility to raise funds on state and local governments and left water utility managers to cope with aging water systems by deferring upgrades for as long as possible and funding upgrades on the backs of ratepayers.

“It’s not a surprise when you look across the country, it’s smaller communities that are in trouble,” Lall said. “And the other areas that are in trouble are the somewhat larger cities that have been depopulating.”

During the past year, the EPA’s Regan visited Lowndes County, Alabama, where residents without septic systems are forced to straight-pipe waste from their homes into nearby waterways or backyards. He also visited McDowell County, West Virginia, where some residents have to collect their drinking water from roadside springs. Both West Virginia and Alabama received millions in funding through the infrastructure law.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan talks with McDowell County residents
EPA Administrator Michael Regan talks with McDowell County residents about drinking and wastewater infrastructure issues in the community.EPA

“These are unacceptable conditions that we’re seeing all across the country,” Regan said. 

“These are the communities that are most at-risk from a health standpoint,” he added. “These are communities also that have suffered from a lack of investment and indifference. And so we want to put those who need these resources the most at the front of the line.”

‘Maybe we shouldn’t drink it’

Continuing infrastructure problems and headline-dominating water crises, from Flint to Jackson to Baltimore, have created a trust gap in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color across the country, Exum said.

“I think we’re now entering that dangerous place where people are asking, ‘Can we trust the water system? Maybe we shouldn’t drink it,’” she said.

In Baltimore, as across the nation, costs for infrastructure upgrades and repairs are passed on to consumers. In doing so, Baltimore’s water rates have risen more rapidly than the national average. One 2018 study found that typical residential bills in Baltimore increased by 127 percent from 2010 to 2018, and estimated bills would be triple the 2010 average by 2022. Last year, the city launched a program to help residents pay water bills.

“Whenever we’re responding to an emergency, that is more expensive,” Garbark said. “That takes away from our revenue and our money that we have to use for our capital projects. Every dollar we spend has to be raised from our ratepayers.”

For residents who have experienced sewer backups, discolored water and other issues, those high bills are hard to square.

Whether the problem is in her building or in the city’s pipes, the water coming out of the tap at Stacy Beahm’s home in South Baltimore is often brown and sandy. The water in her toilet stains the bowl yellow. Every month, she spends about $150 a month on bottled water and lugs home heavy jugs for herself and her children. That's on top of her water bill, which averages about $200 a month.

Sometimes, she said, she has to choose between paying her bill and buying food.

“I’ve still got to pay a water bill for water that’s going down the drain,” she said. 

“Would you trust tan and brownish water? I don’t and I’m scared to death to give it to my kids. I’m pretty sure nobody wants to drink dirty water.” 

It’s that trust that Regan said the federal government has to help restore.

“As we are rebuilding water infrastructure, we’re also rebuilding trust with communities,” Regan said. “I can understand the trepidation that people have all across this country because water systems have been failing our communities. It’s time for government to step up, and that’s what we’re doing.”