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Keyword: pipeline maintenance

Upgrades needed to reduce risk of future breaks, overflows

Pursuant to a 2005 Consent Decree with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Baltimore County continues to undertake significant infrastructure improvements to its aging water and sewer system.  The extensive upgrades, payable through the regional Metropolitan District fund, will provide enhanced environmental benefits and reduce the risk of future pipeline breaks and sewage overflows.

“These ongoing improvements must be made to protect our citizens, now and for the next generation.  As a responsible government, we must bite the bullet now and not kick the can down the road," said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "With our obligation under the federal decree, along with the requirement that by law the Metropolitan District fund must be self-supporting, we must adjust the rates over the next two years. This will also satisfy the concerns of the Wall Street rating agencies that the current funding level is not sufficient."

Standard and Poor’s Rating Services recently warned County officials that its Metropolitan District fund was no longer keeping pace with the County’s required repairs. Its recent report stated that, “The County’s debt and liability factor score changed from strong to weak and reflects the now only partial self-support provided to the County’s Metropolitan District bonds.”

Ed Adams, County Director of Public Works, noted that, "Water main breaks and sewage overflows continue to occur, even with the increased efforts of the past decade. Our goal is a reliable water distribution system along with a sewer collection system that has no overflows. Baltimore County has 200 miles of waterfront, and our residents have a special connection with the Chesapeake Bay. Sewage overflows present a health hazard to the Bay and the entire watershed. As anyone who owns an older home can attest, pipes that are 60 and 70 years old are just a disaster waiting to happen.”

To comply with the law and maintain the solvency of the Metropolitan District fund, the County must boost user contribution by $54 million over the next two years for replacement of water pipes, relining of sewer pipes, and upgrading of treatment plants that will provide the highest level of sewage treatment technology to enhance treated water quality that discharges into the Chesapeake Bay.

The majority of county residences receive the benefit of public water and sewer service through the Metropolitan District.  The District was created through an Act of General Assembly in 1924, providing a regional water and sewer system owned and operated by Baltimore City, but drawing from County reservoirs with multiple treatment facilities located in the County.  County residents also pay quarterly water usage fees to Baltimore City.

 Aging infrastructure

Through the Metropolitan District, Baltimore County maintains 3,160 miles of sewer lines and another 2,139 miles of water lines. Sixty percent of the County's water and sewer pipes are more than fifty years old, which is the average life span of a water and sewer pipe. More than half of all the County's pipes were installed before 1970, with the greatest percentage installed in the 1950s.

The Back River Treatment Plant was completed in 1911, and the Patapsco treatment facility became operational in 1940.  County users also pay a pro-rata consumption share toward facilities located in the City but utilized for the benefit of all users. The City's Montebello Water Filtration Plant No. 1 was built in 1915, and the Montebello Filtration Plant No. 2 was built in 1928. The City's Ashburton Water Filtration plant was completed in 1956.

Federal Consent Decree Upgrades

More than ten years ago, the federal government required that the County improve the sewer system and to halt all sewage overflows – following similar requirements the federal Government had negotiated with jurisdictions throughout the nation. In September, 2005, Baltimore County entered into a consent agreement with the EPA, the MDE and the Department of Justice with respect to the sanitary sewer system.

The Consent Decree required a complete inspection of the system – more than 3,000 miles of sewer line and 117 pumping stations in 23 sewer sheds (areas where gravity sewer lines drain to a central point). Today almost all of the pipe lines and manholes in the sewer sheds have been inspected and evaluated.  The County is now moving forward with the implementation of the needed repairs identified as part of the inspections and evaluations that have taken place. Miles of pipe, along with hundreds of manholes and house connections, have already been relined or repaired. In addition, more than half of the sewage pumping stations (and those were primarily the largest ones) have been completely modernized or replaced with additional projects on the horizon. 

Significant investments

Since 2005 Baltimore County has invested $499 million in EPA-required projects and essential capital investments. The County’s total investment will total more than $1.6 billion that will encompass a complete investigation, analysis and renovation of the entire system.

That system is not limited to 3,160 miles of sewer pipe, 58,000 manholes and 117 pumping stations. It takes in more than 200 thousand customer connections (laterals), requiring continuous inspection and maintenance. And, most notably, the system includes the cost-sharing partnership with Baltimore City’s two waste treatment facilities. Baltimore County’s contribution to the Back River and Patapsco operations, alone, has averaged $31 million annually over ten years. And today the Back River facility is on the cusp of a $450 million expansion and the Patapsco operation is scheduled for $330 million upgrade. Other upgrades include: The White Marsh Pumping Station and the aging force main leading from it, which had been the cause of major overflows before 2005, were completely renovated in 2008 at a cost of $30 million. The Patapsco Pumping Station, which receives effluent from the entire west side of Baltimore County, was rebuilt between 2008 and 2010 at a cost of $46 million while the

Stemmers Run Station and force main were renovated at the same time at a cost of $39 million.

It is of some note that Baltimore County had planned (and was working on) these projects when the Consent Decree was first being negotiated.

In the past 12 months, the County has completed, or is in the process of completing, $51.2 million of repairs to its aging water and sewer infrastructure.

History of the Metropolitan District

Metropolitan District:

This sewer and water-operating district was created as a separate and financially self-supporting entity under the jurisdiction of Baltimore City to supply water and to provide sewerage and drainage systems to residents of the County living within certain prescribed areas. The water system is actually an extension of the Baltimore City system, which draws water from County reservoirs, treats the water, and then returns it to County residents at cost.  

Water Charges:

County citizens receive quarterly water bills from the City of Baltimore.  These bills are based upon the amount of water that County citizens use.  Baltimore County estimates the amount of water that citizens will use during the fiscal year. 

Sewer Charges: 

The sewer charge is also based on a volumetric rate similar to the water charge, but paid by users annually.  Baltimore County sets the sewer service charge rate based upon the readings on the water meters by Baltimore City.  Basically, this charge assumes that sewer usage can be related to the water bill:  water in = water out.  The increases in this charge are related to significant infrastructure improvements to water, sewer, and filtration systems being implemented by both Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

Fee structure

To pay for these upgrades the County will increase Metropolitan District fees In FY 17 and FY 18, effective July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017:

FY 17

The Sewer Service charge appears on an individual’s property tax bill in July:

Current rate:    $45.40 per 1,000 cubic feet of water consumption

New Rate:       $50.85

The Water Distribution charge also appears on an individual’s property tax bill in July, and it is a flat annual charge based upon the meter size:

Current rate:    $112.83

New Rate:       $126.37

The Metered Water Usage charge is billed to individuals from Baltimore City quarterly:

Current rate:    $16.73 per 1,000 cubic feet of water consumption

New Rate:       $18.74

Average impact on a family of four: $130.20/year

FY 18

The Sewer Service charge appears on an individual’s property tax bill in July:

Current rate:    $50.85 per 1,000 cubic feet of water consumption

New Rate:       $54.92

The Water Distribution charge also appears on an individual’s property tax bill in July, and it is a flat annual charge based upon the meter size:

Current rate:    $126.37

New Rate:       $136.48

The Metered Water Usage charge is billed to individuals from Baltimore City quarterly:

Current rate:    $18.74 per 1,000 cubic feet of water consumption

New Rate:       $20.24

Average impact on a family of four: $97.23/year

image of the inside of a sewage pipelineJohn Van Ness
Associate Engineer, Baltimore County Bureau of Utilities

How do you inspect more than 60 miles of pressurized sewer pipelines when they are all underground and must continue operating during the inspection? As with so many issues in our modern world, we turn to technology.

Baltimore County Bureau of Utilities operates more than a hundred Sewage Pump Stations, each with at least one pressurized pipe (called a force main) to transfer sewage to a gravity sewer main or another pump station, eventually ending up at a either the Back River or Patapsco wastewater treatment plants. The total combined length of pump station force mains is 62 miles and the longest of them are over 3 miles in length. Inspecting these force mains is a challenge because there is no access along the length of the pipe, only at either end. In addition, they must remain in operation and they are typically buried underground where they cannot be observed. With advanced technology Baltimore County is inspecting these mains while they remain in operation and learning more about potential problems that cannot be seen with the naked eye. 

The Pure Technologies PipeDiver inspection tool is a 15-foot long, 3-sectioned submarine that uses electromagnetic instruments to determine overall pipe strength and can identify any problem areas to within several feet. We were the first agency to ever use this free-swimming tool that is put in the pipe at the station while the station is operating and is caught at the other end in a specially constructed cage in the gravity manhole. With what is learned from the PipeDiver we can make educated decisions on whether to replace a force main, repair it or re-inspect at a later date.

The SmartBall tool, also from Pure Technologies, uses sound recording and advanced location technology to find leaks and air pockets in force mains. A leak is an obvious problem but air pockets will trap corrosive gases that will corrode and weaken pipe unseen on the outer surface of the pipe. The SmartBall comes in sizes from 4 inches to 7 inches and like its name, it looks like a blue foam toy “Nerf” ball. The ball is put in the force main at the station and rolls along the pipe counting rotations and recording the specific sound signatures that indicate a leak or air pocket. It is caught much the same way as the pipe diver but often a crab or fish net is used just as effectively as a cage.

When the station has enough capacity or the force main is short enough that we can turn off the pumps to do an inspection we can use robotic tools to inspect pipe as well. These will have a combination of the above technology in addition to a closed-circuit TV camera. The largest one we have used is 6 feet long, weighs 300 pounds and looks like a miniature tank complete with two sets of tracks and an articulated camera.

Replacing force mains is expensive, and the use of advanced technology is allowing the County to reduce maintenance costs by only replacing those portions of pipe that need replacing and taking action before breaks might occur.


Revised April 6, 2016