Ten years ago, fed up with floating litter everywhere and frequent whiffs of sewage, Baltimore’s business, government and civic leaders launched a “Healthy Harbor” campaign to clean up the long-polluted waterway in the heart of Maryland’s largest city. They vowed to make it swimmable and fishable by 2020.

Now, with the arrival of that self-imposed deadline, the Waterfront Partnership, as the business-led group is known, has declared victory — sort of.

Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, shown here collecting water at Canton Waterfront Park, checks bacteria levels weekly around the Inner Harbor. Bacteria levels have trended down over the past decade, but other indicators of stormwater pollution have not. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

Amid a multibillion-dollar sewer overhaul in the city and suburban Baltimore County, water sampling shows that bacteria levels from chronic sewage leaks and overflows have improved to the point that much of the harbor is usually safe to swim in, at least during dry weather.

A trio of popular floating “trash wheels” deployed over the last six years, meanwhile, has intercepted nearly 1,500 tons of trash and debris washed down storm drains and feeder streams before it could get into the harbor.

“Today, the harbor is just as swimmable as bodies of water located in or adjacent to other cities across the country,” said Michael Hankin, president and CEO of an investment firm at the Inner Harbor who chaired the partnership when it began the cleanup campaign.

He mentioned Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and the District of Columbia as Baltimore’s peers in cleaning up their water ways — though it’s still illegal to take a dip in the District’s waters despite similarly improved bacteria levels in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

“Like those cities,” Hankin said, “the [Baltimore] harbor isn’t going to be swimmable every day. No urban waterway is or can be.”

People jog and stroll along the waterfront promenade in Canton. Once lined with factories, warehouses and shipyards, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor now encompasses tourism and entertainment attractions, marinas, restaurants, shops, offices and condos. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

But at a livestreamed announcement on Sept. 23, Hankin promised that next year, “as soon as we get through the pandemic,” he’d lead a celebratory swim across Baltimore’s harbor.

He was joined online by Brandon Scott, City Council president and Democratic nominee for mayor in November’s election, who said he was looking forward to kayaking in the harbor after being told growing up that the water was unsafe even to touch.

Adam Lindquist, director of the partnership’s Healthy Harbor campaign, said the group believes it’s time to pivot from a decade-long focus on cleanup to encouraging more recreational activities in the harbor. He said they want to start by holding swim events, but they are also exploring the creation of a kayak launch and water trail for paddlers in the harbor.

And while Lindquist called it “aspirational” for now, the partnership unveiled a conceptual drawing of a permanent swim spot that it would like to establish in the Inner Harbor by the Maryland Science Center.

“We think it’s an amazing natural resource that is underutilized,” he said. “Part of the reason … is this stigma which is not entirely accurate any more about water quality in the Baltimore Harbor.”

Too soon for swimsuits

Not everyone, though, is as ready to jump in.

Jenn Aiosa, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, said that while some cleanup efforts seem to be moving in the right direction, her group believes there’s more to do before declaring the harbor swimmable.

“I’m a pragmatist more than anything,” she said in an interview before the partnership released its Harbor Heartbeat report card on the state of the harbor. “And I think it is still too soon to say, ‘Hey, everybody, put on your swimsuit.’”

Its warning partially obscured by vines, a sign warns those on the Jones Falls trail north of downtown Baltimore to avoid contact with the stream because of frequent pollution by sewage overflows. No similar signage is posted around the harbor; city officials say they follow state rules about notifying the public of sewage contact risks. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

The partnership’s leaders say they’re not advocating for anyone to start swimming in the harbor right now. It’s still a busy place at times for tour boats, cargo ships and pleasure boats, so suitable areas for swimming need to be identified. And because rainfall can wash sewage and polluted stormwater into the harbor, they first want to work out a system for signaling the public when it’s safe and not safe to get on or in the water.

They also want to wait at least until the city completes its $430 million “headworks project” aimed at fixing a misaligned sewer connection to the Back River wastewater treatment plant. The problem is believed to be responsible for 80% of the sewage overflows citywide. That work is expected to be finished early next year.

It’s part of a citywide sewer system overhaul mandated in 2002 by a federal consent decree. The effort is expected to cost $2.6 billion before it’s all done as much as a decade from now. It’s being paid for in part by state and federal funds but also by steep increases in residents’ water bills. Baltimore County, which pipes its sewage into the city for treatment, also has invested $1.5 billion over the past 15 years under a separate decree to fix leaks and overflows in its system.

A construction crew in Baltimore works on installing large new sewer lines by the Jones Falls, which has long been subject to chronic sewage contamination. The city expects to spend upwards of $2.6 billion in overhauling its sewer system to reduce sewage leaks and overflows that are a major factor in its waterways unfit for human contact. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

It appears that the lengthy repair efforts are finally getting results, Aiosa said. Water monitoring that her group has been doing since 2009 shows bacteria levels have trended down significantly at 34 of 49 spots sampled in the harbor as well as in its tributaries, the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls.

But Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, noted that even with those trends, bacteria levels in some spots spike unpredictably, even when the sun is shining.

Volpitta samples the water weekly for fecal bacteria from sewage, but she said it takes at least 24 hours to get results. Until there’s a way to reliably measure or predict levels on a given day, Volpitta said, there’s still some risk of getting sick by swimming, wading, paddling or even fishing in sewage-tainted water in the city’s harbor and streams.

Indeed, Aiosa and Volpitta contend the city should be posting signs around the harbor, as it has in the streams, warning the public that the water could be contaminated at times by sewage overflows, particularly after rainfall. State regulations require notices to be posted in affected areas, and Jennifer Combs, spokesperson for the Department of Public, said the city posts signage about sewer overflows where required.

Ecological health still poor

Meanwhile, other indicators of the water’s ecological health aren’t improving, they note. Nutrient and sediment pollution remain a problem in the streams and the harbor. They suspect those worsening trends stem from increased stormwater runoff from pavement and buildings.

“We really don’t want to lose sight of the fact our ecosystem health is nowhere near where it needs to be,” Aioso said, either to meet the region’s responsibility to help restore the Chesapeake Bay or to ensure that local residents have safe, clean water in which they can recreate.

Almost unmentioned in the upbeat announcement of improving bacteria levels was the Healthy Harbor campaign’s other goal, which was to make local waters fishable by 2020. In one sense they already are: crabs, striped bass and other fish are routinely caught from piers and other unofficial fishing spots around the city.

But the sediments on the bottom are contaminated with toxic metals, pesticides and other chemicals left behind by industries that have since been largely replaced by tourist attractions, restaurants, offices and condos.

Tim Marshall prepares to throw back a white perch he caught at the Baltimore Rowing Club pier on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. The state has issued advisories urging anglers to limit their consumption of perch and a number of other fish because they’re contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

The state has issued advisories urging anglers to limit the frequency with which they eat locally caught fish and crabs because they’re contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Once widely used as insulators in all kinds of equipment, PCBs were banned in 1979 because of human health threats, but they linger in sediments and get picked up by fish.

Anglers also are warned about eating some local fish because of mercury contamination, which stems in part from continuing emissions of the toxic metal by coal-burning power plants and trash incinerators — like the one near the Ravens stadium, where the Gwynns Falls flows into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Those cautions don’t always have an impact; there are no signs around the harbor warning anglers about contamination risks. One recent morning, Tim Marshall was working a pair of fishing rods at the end of the Baltimore Rowing Club pier on the Middle Branch. In town from Prince George’s County to visit his girlfriend, he said he was just casting for sport and tossed back small perch and spot he hooked. But at the next pier over, two people were crabbing, apparently for keepers.

Unlike the sewage and trash cleanups, there’s not been a concerted effort in Baltimore to deal with those contaminants, counting instead on cleaner sediments to gradually bury the toxic ones and reduce the hazards to fish and people. Until the fish are free from toxic contaminants, Aiosa said, the harbor won’t truly be fishable for those who crab and fish to feed themselves and their families. And the contamination even poses some risk to swimmers and waders if they stir up the tainted sediments, she pointed out.

Lindquist said the partnership defines “fishable” differently, considering the harbor fishable if anglers are no longer at risk of getting sick from handling fish caught in sewage-fouled water. They’ll still need to heed the fish consumption advisories, he said.

Plastic bottles, foam cups, and other flotsam collect between a boat and dock in the Inner Harbor. Baltimore city is under a federal-state mandate to eliminate trash littering the harbor, one of the few US cities to be ordered to deal with floating refuse in its waterways. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

The partnership wants to work with Blue Water Baltimore and city, state and federal agencies on developing a system for letting the public know when bacteria levels are low enough it’s safe to go in or on the water. It’s also laid out a 10-point action plan for the next decade, including increasing recycling, reducing waste and making the city a hub for green jobs.

More immediately, the partnership expects soon to deploy a fourth trash wheel, this time at the mouth of the Gwynns Falls, to augment the litter cleanup efforts.

In the meantime, the group thinks it’ll help advance further cleanup if the public can get on or in the harbor.

“The people of Baltimore have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and taxes to clean it up,” Lindquist said. There’s still work to do, he acknowledged, especially in trying to curb stormwater runoff. But the progress seen in reducing sewage in the water “means it’s time … to start managing the harbor as a recreational resource for the city and state.”

The harbor waterkeeper says that should be done without glossing over the remaining risks and problems. “We can still promote access to the water,” Volpitta said, “but we can tell them what they’re getting into, literally and figuratively.”

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