Field Tripping By Kate Drabinski

Field Tripping: Taxing Water

City Paper

I took the afternoon off on Tax Day, a reward for having completed my return a full two days before the deadline. I figured I’d earned a little something after pitching in thousands of dollars over the course of 2014, my tip in the jar that holds the social wage—that chunk we shave off to pay for things we need collectively. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but everybody likes the things they help pay for: shared roads, first responders, unemployment insurance, and weapons of mass destruction—OK, maybe we don’t like all the things they pay for; a fifth of the social wage funds our war machine. At the same time, if we didn’t pay taxes into a shared pot to spend to meet collective needs, well, we’d sure notice.

I thought about this as I spent my afternoon riding my bike around Lake Montebello and then over to Druid Hill Park to check out how spring’s treating two of my favorite places. I’m happy that some of my tax dollars go toward upkeep of these public parks. Given the folks enjoying the spring day with me—walkers, spandexed cyclists (I manage to ride in regular clothes because I am magical), kids shoving each other in that way kids shove each other because the joy of being together outside is too much to handle, throwback rollerbladers, a lady with a brand-new puppy who kept getting himself tangled because when you’re a puppy you still have to learn how to walk on a leash—I’d say I’m not the only one who is happy to have these shared resources.

I chose these two spots not only because they’re parks, but also because I was having some idle discomfort about the part where we call the bodies of water in these parks “lakes.” I mean, those are reservoirs built to hold water for people—where I come from, that doesn’t count as a lake. A lake is something nature builds with glaciers or old volcano cones—think Lake Tahoe or Lake Placid. Calling Druid Lake a lake is like calling that landslide over on 26th Street—remember that one?—a sinkhole. Sure, there are some surface similarities, but dude, that’s not a lake, even if lake sounds way sexier.

Or maybe Lake Montebello really is a lake. I’m an academic, so after my field trip to check out the “lakes,” I dug into some research. OK, I Googled it. I couldn’t find a whole lot on the question of whether or not it’s a lake, but I did find myself learning some history of Baltimore’s water system. According to our trusty City of Baltimore historians, efforts to organize a public water system started way back in 1787, almost a full decade before the city became a city at all. Those efforts failed, but in 1803 a city commission was begun to supply Baltimoreans with water. Herculean efforts were expended to pull together the various creeks of Carroll Run and deliver that water to the city via pipelines—huzzah! Water!

As the 1800s progressed and the Baltimore Water Company was formed, the city built a series of reservoirs all over the city to hold water piped in from the Jones and Gunpowder Falls to provide water to a growing city. Druid Hill Reservoir (or Lake?) was built in 1873, part of the Gunpowder Falls water-gathering scheme, for a grand total cost of $4.5 million—no small change even now. By the end of the century Loch Raven Reservoir had been built, along with a tunnel connecting it to, that’s right, Lake Montebello. I don’t know if that means it’s a lake or not, but I do know that means a whole lot of money and a whole lot of effort have gone in to getting enough water to Baltimore for us to survive.

As I enjoyed the parks on this fine Tax Day 2015 I thought about how much tax money has gone to making water available for us, and I have to say, of anything we could spend the social wage on, this is totally worth it. All living things require water to survive, which means water is one of the very most basic elements of life, and it’s one we can largely take for granted since we just turn on faucets and it’s there, flowing out.

This was in my mind as I toured the reservoirs that hold water right in the city. They are just part of the background for lots of us, a pretty spot to walk or bike and enjoy the sunshine. But there is so much money and effort and ingenuity in the background. Faucets don’t just “turn on” in the morning, and that’s especially true for the many people whose water is being turned off right now due to an inability to pay their bills. There’s a big lake of water just down the street from where I live, but the neighbor two doors down from me doesn’t have water flowing from her taps while I do. The difference? Money. That’s it.

And I got to wondering: Isn’t this what tax money is for? I personally stuffed more than $3,000 in the city and state coffers this year, not counting the sales tax I pay on crap almost every day, and I’d like more of that to be spent on water for everybody. It’s a collective resource, a shared need, every bit as much as the roads we take for granted. We don’t expect everyone to pay to upkeep the asphalt on the specific roads they drive—we see roads as meeting a collective need that all should be able to access (though even there we’ve started building roads for people with the money to pay a special toll, but that’s a different story). Water is necessary for life—do I really want to live in a world where if my neighbor can’t pay for it, she’s shit out of luck? Really? If we aren’t paying taxes for this basic service, what the fuck are we paying them for? 


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