What You Need to Know About the Harbor’s ‘F’ in Water Quality

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Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 12.51.08 PMThe 2015 Healthy Harbor Report Card is out and it came as no surprise that the Inner Harbor’s water quality received a failing grade. Again. We recently outlined seven big ideas underway to reduce the Baltimore-area’s sewage, trash, and stormwater pollution that flows into the Inner Harbor. Here’s what you need to know about this year’s report card.

Blue Water Baltimore’s Executive Director Halle Van der Gaag summed it up the best at the report card’s unveiling, “It used to be lonely working to clean up our waterways; it felt as if it was just us. But since the 2010 launch of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, which  brought government, nonprofits, and the community together, the team has built in expertise, focus, finances and resolve. While we must ensure a lot of infrastructure work happens before 2020, we just may be swimming this harbor after all.”

There is only one way to go. Up. Only Bodkin Creek near Pasadena earned a passing grade.
There is only one way to go. Up. Only Bodkin Creek near Pasadena earned a C- passing grade.

A $350+ Million Pipe

The Inner Harbor’s water quality wasn’t a priority for many Baltimore administrations. It took getting sued by the feds in 2002 to force then Mayor O’Malley to invest in updating our sewage system.

Once engineers began analyzing the sewage system, it was discovered that the main pipe that brings 75 percent of the Baltimore-area’s sewage into the Back River Water Treatment Plant is broken. Remember, Baltimore County and Baltimore City share drinking water, sewage and stormwater systems. 

As the photo below illustrates, the impact of the broken “Head Works” pipe is that sewage backs up 10 miles underground.  This is key to know because of an “overflow” system built in long ago. If the underground system leading into the waste treatment plant is backed up, and too much water overwhelms the sewage system during a heavy rain storm, then Baltimore’s sewage system hits capacity.  This is pretty gross, but our environment and health standards weren’t top of mind when engineers long ago designed overflow pipes that dump untreated sewage straight into our urban waterways. You guessed it, those urban streams flow right into the Inner Harbor and then into the Chesapeake Bay.  About 60 million gallons of sewage continues to drain into the Jones Falls River each year. Just last week, Baltimore City reported 46,000 gallons of sewage was intentionally released.

The Back River Head Works project has been approved and when completed by 2020, the last two vestigial sewage overflow pipes will be closed. That can’t happen soon enough.

The 10-mile underground back due to the restricted inflow pipe into the Back River Sewage Treatment means our system hits capacity during rain storms.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of Baltimore’s sewage overflow issue is due to the Back River plant’s broken Head Works intake pipe.

It’s All About Trash

Poor water quality isn’t just about high fecal counts. Though a 10-mile underground sewage back-up may be invisible to residents, we all see the foam cups, cigarette butts, and plastic bags in our streets, trees, alleys, and floating in our Inner Harbor.

In the past three years, Baltimore City has invested millions in a slew of initiatives intended to stop trash from getting into waterways. City-wide street sweeping is underway (should cars be forced to move on street sweeping days?). Each of Baltimore City’s 210,000 households just got a big trash can with wheels. Storm grates and screens have been installed over storm drains to collect trash and debris that street sweepers can then clear away.

The Waterfront Partnership’s Mr. Trash Wheel visibly reminds all waterfront visitors that we have a bit of a problem using trash cans. The Inner Harbor water wheel trash eater has collected 239 tons of trash in only two years. Mr. Trash Wheel is hoping for a brother, or sister, soon in Canton. The Waterfront Partnership’s cigarette butt recycling boxes are located in strategic Harbor East locations reminding people that cigarette butts don’t get flicked into the streets, they now get recycled.  

Maybe, just maybe, a plastic bag ban bill will get approved. A Baltimore City plastic bag bill has been voted on eight times. Baltimore City Councilman Jim Kraft publicly asked at the Healthy Harbor’s report card unveiling for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to sign the bag ban bill that she vetoed in 2014. We’ll see?

Urban Stormwater Pollution Finally Gets Addressed

Until the feds sued Baltimore, another pollution problem that Baltimore’s elected officials punted for years was stormwater pollution. Notice the pattern? While the Chesapeake Bay’s sewage and agriculture runoff was decreasing due to the flush fee sewage treatment upgrades and better farming practices, the chart below reveals that urban storm pollution kept rising.

Source: Pollution by source by state from ChesapeakeStat. Only increase is urban stormwater runoff.

Legislated in 2012, Maryland’s ten largest municipalities began charging residents and businesses a stormwater fee. Though some have dropped the fee, those municipalities are still legally required to put projects in place to collect, treat, and divert the urban grime, chemicals, and trash that flows untreated into our waterways.  Baltimore City alone collects $21 million per year. 

There are many completed stormwater collection ponds, rain gardens, rains barrels, pocket parks, and newly planted trees popping up all over the Baltimore area. With Blue Water Congregationsour faith communities are getting in on the fix by implementing stormwater projects, and look to Blue Water Baltimore as a first step with any stormwater-related questions or needs.

It’s a safe bet that next year’s report card unveiling may host more than the 100 or so people that attended this year’s event. Cleaning up the Inner Harbor is now an all-hands on deck process now with many government, non-profit, business and community stakeholders. This was evident at the report card’s unveiling when Representative John Sarbanes, Delegate Brook Lierman, Councilman Jim Kraft, Waterfront Partnership’s Chairman of the Board Michael Hankin, Blue Water Baltimor’s halle van der Gaad, and DPW Director Rudy S. Chow all spoke about the Inner Harbor’s progress. Billions of clean up dollars have been invested, along with an enormous amount of time and talent. Now we’ll have to wait and see if next year’s grades improve.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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1 COMMENT

  1. Great work. BWB needs to be commended for its part in creating further awareness of our challenges and importance of our water quality.

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