Navigating Toward A Healthy Harbor

August 7, 2014
BY Melissa Gerr
Battling a scourge of sewage, trash and polluted runoff to restore Baltimore’s waterways

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor received a failing grade this year for its lack of water quality, and the resources needed to improve it are as complex a network as the myriad waterways that comprise its watershed, draining 134 square miles within Baltimore City and County, an area equal to 64,856 football fields.

But for Baltimore’s tourism industry, the harbor is crucial, says Sam Rogers, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Visit Baltimore. “The No. 1 draw is the Inner Harbor.”

According to Rogers’ office, nearly 24 million tourists visited the site last year, pumping more than $5 billion into the local economy. Local businessman Dan Naor worries that if the harbor remains dirty, such impressive numbers will quickly decline.

“We smell the water, we see the floating trash, we get the warnings from the Coast Guard: Don’t swim, don’t [scuba] dive,” says Naor, an Israeli-American and chief operating officer of Baltimore Marine Centers, which rents approximately 1,200 slips within the Inner Harbor.

Naor has even lost annual renters who are “fed up with the trash,” he says. “We see it every day. It’s a huge problem; it’s unacceptable. There’s no reason why in 2014 we have such dirty water in the Baltimore harbor; there’s no excuse for it.”

Enter Healthy Harbor 2020, the plan launched by Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, Inc. and its president, Laurie Schwartz, who with a coalition of government agencies, environmental groups, businesses and community organizations pledge to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. Sensitive to concerns such as Naor’s and aware of warnings to avoid contact with the contaminated waters of Baltimore’s biggest tourist attraction, their strategy is to combat and correct the scourge of sewage, trash and polluted storm water that have been identified as chief sources to the harbor’s pollution. But even they admit that to complete the job by 2020 is an ambitious goal.

“It was far enough out that it seemed possible,” says Schwartz, “but close enough that people might live to see it.”

Waterfront Partnership “started out focused on the basics of clean, safe and attractive” in the harbor area,  she explains.

Then about four years ago, Waterfront Partnership chair and Brown Advisory CEO Michael Hankin approached the board members and said the job was only half complete, Schwartz recalls, “if we were only focused on the land side and had our backs to the water. … It was because of the view, because of the great asset of the harbor and because of the water” that so many businesses and residents were located there.

At the time, says Schwartz, people weren’t sure how exactly to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by the next decade.

Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Blue Water Baltimore, a local nonprofit water monitoring and advocacy group, all supplied input to the Healthy Harbor plan, and two local environmental engineering firms, Biohabitats and the Center for Watershed Protection, researched and analyzed its methods and goals. Bill Stack, the deputy director of the Center for Watershed Protection, has 30 years of experience in surface-water management from his time at the Baltimore City Department of Public Works.

Stack says his years with the city allowed him extra insight to the challenges and that he “could develop a plan that was uncensored … based on what I would have done had I had power in Baltimore City and the political support.”

The resulting plan is a progressive multidisciplinary approach, he says, aiming to reduce and eliminate trash on streets that could eventually end up in the waterways, repair or replace the aging sewer system, restore degraded streams to function properly and reduce impervious surfaces so there is more land for water absorption.

The plan includes monitored progress reports, measured through regular checks of harbor water and its watershed streams for five water-quality indicators: chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, total nitrogen and total phosphorus, the substance contributing to the algae bloom in Lake Erie that is being blamed for contaminating Toledo, Ohio’s water supply. One human-health indicator, bacterial contamination, is also monitored in Baltimore.

Each year, Eco-Check — a partnership between the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — issues an assessment report card. Earlier this year, the harbor received an F.

“We’re not where we want to be or need to be; however, progress is being made,” says Schwartz. “It may seem like a fine line, but to us it’s real progress that, within that F grade, the percentage of times that the harbor met certain standards increased over the last year and over previous years. And so it’s within sight that we will get to a D and then we believe a C.”

SEWAGE SEEPAGE

“There’s actually a tremendous amount of sewage contamination that’s entering our streams, rivers and harbor on a daily basis, [even] during dry weather, through the storm-water infrastructure,” says David Flores, the Baltimore harbor water keeper with Blue Water Baltimore.

Flores, who holds an environmental science degree from Bard College and is a part-time evening student at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, explains that his role as water keeper is concerned foremost with monitoring and legal advocacy, drawing upon the 1972 Clean Water Act to protect rivers and streams. Blue Water Baltimore conducts water-quality studies and advocates for compliance of laws, even lodging lawsuits when needed to protect waterways. The organization has been monitoring pollutants and working to improve water quality since 2010, and it began partnering with Healthy Harbor in 2011.

Sewage contamination of streams happens, explains Flores, because much of the sewer and storm infrastructure in Baltimore is outdated — almost 100 years in some locations; typically, Flores says, systems are built to last about 75 years. The systems are gravity driven, so pipes are laid underground close to existing streams, where the land grade naturally runs downhill.

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