Stories of cities reeling from catastrophes stemming from aging and underinvested water infrastructure have riddled the news: Contamination from lead pipes in Flint and Benton Harbor, Michigan and the failure of a water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi. Baltimore has been plagued for years by various water problems, the most recent being an E. coli contamination that left 1,500 homes and businesses in three areas of the city with a required boil advisory for five days and a precautionary boil advisory for the rest of the city and Baltimore County. Initially, the source of the contamination could not be identified, but ultimately officials reported that the predicament originated with aging infrastructure failures, the same problem encountered by the other cities.

The E. coli contamination was the compilation of three incidents, beginning in July with the collapse of a storm tunnel built in 1898 that created a sinkhole. The second incident was the failure of a water main valve that was over 100 years old. In tandem, these occurrences rendered two large water mains inoperable compelling the city to shift its water draw to Druid Lake, decreasing the lake’s level to a vulnerable volume. Consequently, the city turned to Lake Ashburton for its drinking water, but it, too, had experienced a sinkhole near its dam earlier in the year that forced the city to discontinue the use of a water main there that is nearly a century old. The convergence of these factors resulted in lowered chlorine levels, allowing E. coli to infiltrate the water system and demonstrated the fragility of aging water systems.[1]

As with other water crises, minority neighborhoods have been disproportionately affected by failing infrastructure while shouldering increasing water rates to cover the costs of its maintenance. In a report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights entitled, Water Affordability in Maryland, the last twenty years have seen an increase in Baltimore’s water bills of 500 percent, whereas the household income has increased only 60 percent.[2] Decreased federal funds for infrastructure along with shrinking population and tax base has yielded insufficient funds for improvements, so maintenance repairs are made as issues arise, leaving water systems at risk.

Although there is hope that funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will finance significant change for water systems in cities like Baltimore with $55 billion allocated over the next 5 years, the amount required nationally is distressingly higher. According to the EPA’s Drinking Water Infrastructure needs Survey and Assessment released in 2018, an estimated $472.6 billion in capital improvements are needed for water infrastructure nationwide over the next 20 years providing a harsh reality check on the amount of investment needed for consequential improvements.[3]  

[1] Willis, Adam. “Aging Water Infrastructure at the Root of Baltimore E. Coli Contamination, City Officials Say.”, 30 Sept. 2022,

[2] Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “Water Affordability in Maryland - United States Commission on Civil Rights.”, July 2022,

[3] USEPA - Water Office. “Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment .”, Mar. 2018,