Baltimore Sun

City’s neglected infrastruc­ture led to sinkhole on North Avenue — and there may be more to come

- By Alice Volpitta Alice Volpitta (avolpitta@bluewaterb­ is the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeepe­r with Blue Water Baltimore.

The sinkhole on North Avenue that opened up last month and forced the demolition of multiple homes is only the latest example of what happens when we don’t properly invest in climate-resilient water infrastruc­ture. As with the chronic issue of sewage backups into our homes, it’s far too easy to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward our undergroun­d infrastruc­ture. The incident on North Ave is a reminder that what is hidden will not always stay buried.

As The Sun noted, the North Ave sinkhole was the result of a tunnel — built during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt — being inundated with stormwater. As the climate crisis worsens and we experience more extreme rain events, the types of deluges that triggered this incident will only increase in frequency. The global effects of climate change vary by location, but the Intergover­nmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, coupled with the National Oceanic and Atmospheri­c Administra­tion most recent precipitat­ion data release paints a grim picture for the mid-Atlantic region in particular. Baltimore’s old and crumbling infrastruc­ture is not capable of handling the challenges of the 20th century, let alone the extreme weather events of the 21st.

When excessive rainfall strikes the roofs and pavement that cover Baltimore City and much of the surroundin­g counties, it rushes into the undergroun­d pipes and directly into our streams, rivers, Harbor and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. The sheer power and magnitude of those unrestrain­ed stormwater flows are eating away the banks that border those streams and tearing apart those decrepit pipes from the inside out. The consequenc­es are significan­t, from sinkholes threatenin­g the structural integrity of homes to raw sewage backing up into basements. And these impacts are not felt equally. To use author Lawrence Brown’s formulatio­n, the

“white L” running down the 83 corridor and off toward Canton, has consistent­ly received more money for infrastruc­ture than the “Black Butterfly” that spreads its wings into East and West Baltimore, leaving a legacy of environmen­tal racism that goes even deeper than the pipes.

The current approach to stormwater management is not cutting it. Baltimore City relies far too heavily on “alternativ­e practices” like street sweeping to meet its legal requiremen­ts under its Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit. While street sweeping can help clear trash from storm drains, it does nothing to reduce the volume of water entering the system and overwhelmi­ng tunnels, like the one under North Ave. Instead, the city and county should both be prioritizi­ng green stormwater infrastruc­ture such as water-permeable pavement and rain gardens that absorb and filter stormwater, preventing flooding, erosion and, yes, sinkholes. The current MS4 permits aren’t doing enough to protect people and the environmen­t, which is why Blue Water Baltimore is currently challengin­g them in court.

Baltimore City must invest in its water and wastewater infrastruc­ture, both to address current crises and to prepare the city for the changing climate. But residents and ratepayers shouldn’t have to shoulder these costs alone. The city should leverage state and federal resources through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Bipartisan Infrastruc­ture Law to build, repair and maintain the infrastruc­ture that Baltimorea­ns deserve. The state should create more incentives for green stormwater infrastruc­ture in MS4 permit compliance, recognizin­g its numerous co-benefits and climate resilience, and the city should make these practices easier to implement by modifying its code.

Put together, these interventi­ons and investment­s will help Baltimore build more sustainabl­e infrastruc­ture that can weather the storms of tomorrow. And more than anything, we can’t continue to turn a blind eye to the problems beneath the surface of our city. As the North Ave incident shows, they won’t stay buried forever.

 ?? BALTIMORE SUN JERRY JACKSON/ ?? Workers stand next to a sinkhole in the 700 block of East North Avenue last month as threatened homes are demolished.
BALTIMORE SUN JERRY JACKSON/ Workers stand next to a sinkhole in the 700 block of East North Avenue last month as threatened homes are demolished.

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