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Water and sewer systems need federal assistance and flexibility to meet their critical need to maintain, update and expand, Maryland officials told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Tuesday.

Jerry N. Johnson, general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gave the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife a local view of the difficulties of coming up with millions of dollars more annually to maintain aged and failing water and sewer systems, while they struggle to meet demands under the Clean Water Act to improve and expand operations.

Johnson noted that warm weather this winter year helped keep the number of water main breaks in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties -- at 336 in January and 1,600 for 2011 -- below the WSSC average of 1,700 annually, but that the recent numbers are “counter to the long-term trend of upward numbers.”

“Our fear is that if we don’t act quickly enough, one day in the not too distant future the number of breaks will reach a tipping point where we are unable to keep up with repairs,” Johnson said.

A report released Monday by the American Water Works Association estimated that the cost of repairing and expanding water distribution systems in the United States will exceed $1 trillion over the next 25 years and that much of meeting that cost is not planned or budgeted.

In the WSSC’s water distribution system, 26 percent of pipes are more than 50 years old, and the cost of replacing underground water lines over the next six years is about $750 million for the utility -- a pace and expense the utility will have to maintain, Johnson said.

Baltimore may have to introduce a fee on all impervious areas to pay for requirements to curb pollution from stormwater runoff, said Rawlings-Blake, who is co-chairwoman of the Water Council for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“As you can imagine, a new fee will be difficult for our citizens and businesses to absorb in this economy, but without a stable source of funding we will not be able to meet our environmental obligations,” the mayor said.

Rawlings-Blake and Johnson said their utilities’ have cut some enormous energy costs with money-saving investments in wind and solar energy and are looking at other new technologies for energy savings.

But cities need innovative funding options, such as a national Clean Water Trust Fund, to help them borrow money they need, Rawlings-Blake said.

The mayor said she is encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision last fall to work with cities and states on a planning approach that could help local governments find a more cost-effective way to meet requirements for their sewer systems under the Clean Water Act.

The mayor said she would like for federal officials also to take an integrated planning approach for drinking water systems.

U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the subcommittee, said he is still working to require the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop performance-based standards to reduce pollution and damage from stormwater runoff in areas around federally funded highways.

mhyslop@gazette.net