Navigating Toward A Healthy Harbor

“There are cracks and breaks; the sewage will leave the sewer pipes and enter into the storm-water pipes and be conveyed to our rivers and streams completely untreated,” says Flores. “There are [also] illegal connections on commercial, residential and industrial facilities, where someone has intentionally or not connected their own sanitary sewer pipe into a public storm-water pipe.”

Flores’ organization runs an ongoing program called Outfall Screening Blitz that is paid for by the Chesapeake Bay Fund and trains staff and dozens of volunteers to use high-tech equipment and collect water “following procedures that are legally defensible and scientifically rigorous,” says Flores. “And we’re out each week with our volunteers [monitoring] every single tributary, all of our local streams, up and down the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls rivers, collecting water-quality samples for analysis at EPA-certified labs for fecal bacteria and for nutrients.

“[Sometimes] it’s dangerous for folks to touch the water,” he adds. “These are levels of fecal bacteria that exceed the state’s weakest standard for body contact, which means people should think twice about where they kayak or canoe in the harbor and local streams and rivers. It’s a real threat, and we’ve gotten stories from folks and volunteers who have contracted water-borne illnesses because of this very problem.”

Flores, though, realizes that Baltimore’s water-quality problem isn’t just about sewer leakage and fecal bacteria. It’s also about trash.

DEBRIS IN THE STREETS

“You know, trash is really complicated,” says Flores, adding that solving the problem is not as simple as enforcing a litter or illegal dumping law; it requires a multipronged approach of practices to address the problem.

Banding together to combat the trash problem are several organizations, neighborhood groups and city departments working, for the most part in a concerted effort, to drastically reduce the amount of trash on the street, which would reduce the amount that is swept into storm drains and eventually into the harbor. It is a multifaceted approach consisting of the following: specially designed storm-drain grates that capture trash before it sinks down into the sewer
system; targeted, regular street sweeping and corner trash-can installation; and an emphasis on public education to reduce trash-generating behavior.

“In every neighborhood that we talk to, the priority is trash and litter,” says Adam Lindquist, the Healthy Harbor program manager who focuses on community planning and outreach.

Lindquist enlisted the Baltimore Community Foundation to purchase corner trash cans for five initial target neighborhoods: Reservoir Hill, Greenmount West, Waverly, McElderry Park and Highlandtown. The Department of Public Works installed them, and Healthy Harbor and Blue Water Baltimore cultivated a group of volunteers from each neighborhood, including clean captains who monitor the cans on a weekly basis. They then input survey information to track progress online.

This was an important initiative, explains Lindquist. “The city doesn’t always support corner cans because they become dumping sites. People put in household trash, piling it up, and ultimately the neighborhood begins to call the city complaining. And then the corner cans are removed; it’s a vicious cycle.”

The program has been in place for about eight months and has been successful so far, says Lindquist, emphasizing that the cans are being used correctly and noticeably less trash is on the streets. Part of the success, he explains, is that neighborhoods have designed their own cans and invented slogans, taking ownership of the process. The program has been augmented by increased street sweeping citywide by DPW.

Lindquist and the other Healthy Harbor partners are quick to point out that due to the physical make-up of a watershed system, plenty of debris makes its way from Baltimore County into the harbor.

Surprisingly, its removal has become an attraction in itself.

“It’s hard for me to believe there’s an audience for watching trash being pulled out of a waterway, but once a YouTube video gets a million views, it’s undeniable that people are interested in this topic,” Lindquist says of the giant water wheel near the east end of the Inner Harbor.

Watching the Inner Harbor water wheel suck up trash from the harbor is mesmerizing. About 50 feet long, the contraption resembles a giant snail the size of a garage as it floats on a steel barge platform at the outfall point where the Jones Falls River drains into the harbor. That’s the spot where, especially after a deluge of rain, an island of trash forms — made up of snack-food bags, plastic soda bottles, discarded tires and chunks of natural debris. The attraction’s “mouth” is a long slow-moving conveyor-belt tongue, angled to the water at 45 degrees, which methodically, almost hypnotically, dredges up trash, dumping it over the belt’s edge into a large dumpster placed behind it. The arched “snail shell” is constructed of solar panels that turn big paddle wheels at each side, generating power to the conveyer if the water’s current isn’t strong enough. It’s topped by billowy white cloth.

The water wheel was invented by John Kellett, who, with David Chase, own the local company Clearwater Mills. More than 100 tons of trash have been removed from the harbor since the water wheel was placed there a couple of months ago. Constellation Energy and the Maryland Port Administration paid for its $800,000 construction; Baltimore City covers transporting the dumpsters from water to shore and then to a disposal facility, and Waterfront Partnership pays for maintenance and operation.

“That’s a big part of the water wheel — not just to pick up trash, but to be an engaging and unique sculptural piece,” says Lindquist, “so people can come, take a look and then walk away having learned something about the pollution issues in the harbor and what they can do to help.” Ultimately, the hope is to put the trash water wheel out of commission.

POLLUTED RUNOFF AND STEWARDSHIP

But as big and sprawling a pollutant as trash is, right behind it is the amount of toxic storm-water runoff gushing into streams and rivers throughout the harbor’s watershed.

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