With its pedestrian-friendly waterfront that boasts museums, sports stadiums, dining and shopping, Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor is a unique asset. But recent waterfront news has focused on our town’s aging sewage systems struggles and the continued sewage effluence and pollution that flows into the harbor.
Yet, a pretty interesting story has been developing underfoot, literally. When combined, the seven projects outlined below support a clear vision for a cleaner and healthier Inner Harbor. If these efforts are completed, and soon, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has a fighting chance to be swimmable and fishable in the near future.
The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Chairman of the Board Michael Hankin sums up the mood, “It’s an important time as green groups, business people and the Department of Public Works all agree that the goals are achievable. We now have a better understanding of what it will take to make the harbor clean. The puzzle pieces are finally in place.”
Baltimore Water Works 101
Though separate municipalities, Baltimore City and Baltimore County share water systems. Three separate systems funnel water in and out of area homes and businesses. Drinking water is piped into buildings from Baltimore’s water treatment plants for 1.8 million customers. (By the way, we enjoy good quality drinking water.) The stormwater drain system channels untreated rain water from streets and gutters to rivers, the harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. Lastly, the sewage system sends water leaving a building (toilets, showers, and sinks) to the Back River or Patapsco waste treatment plants where sewage for 1.6 million people is treated and then released back into waterways.
Why is the Inner Harbor Polluted? A century summarized.
The Baltimore-area’s sewage system dates back to 1907. Though gross to think about now, when designed long ago, open “overflow” pipes were built to purposefully channel raw sewage into waterways if the system went above capacity during a rain event. As our system aged and the area’s population grew, the Baltimore-area’s sewage issues became so bad that the U.S. Justice Department sued Baltimore in 2002 and forced the city to clean up its sewage act.
In 2002, then Mayor O’Malley signed a contract (a.k.a. Consent Decree) with the EPA and Maryland’s Department of the Environment that committed the Baltimore-area to raise the necessary funds through user rate hikes (billions), and to update the sewage system. All by January 2016.
The result? Even though $710 million has been spent in 14 years, Baltimore missed the January 2016 Consent Decree deadline. A continued sewage “hot spot” was recently reported by the Environmental Integrity Project. Though 60 of 62 overflow pipes were sealed since 2002, two large pipes still drain 60 million gallons of sewage yearly into the Jones Falls River. (More on why later.) Though some progress has been made, Inner Harbor bacteria levels continue to be high and unhealthy, especially after rain events.
7 Inner Harbor Cleanup Projects
So far, it’s sounding like another “city bummer story,” but over the past 14 years, a collective clean-up effort has developed between government, businesses, non-profits, and our community. Here’s how.
1. Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore: With the Consent Decree forcing the City to update the sewage system, what was missing was an all-hands-on-deck strategic plan. Cleaning up the Inner Harbor requires more players than just DPW. Founded in 2009, The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore is a coalition of Baltimore’s key business leaders, environmental non-profits, foundations and technical experts. Launched in 2011, their Healthy Harbor Plan laid out a new waterfront vision coupled with an in-depth, ten-year strategic and tactical plan to reduce trash and bacteria levels, beautify the harbor, and enhance the waterfront experience. The Waterfront Partnership, in concert with the non-profit Blue Water Baltimore, monitors water quality levels and publishes a yearly Healthy Harbor Report Card. This group also works closely with Baltimore’s DPW.
2. Headworks Project: Though sewage pipes may seem dull as mud, there is one city pipe below ground that’s pretty important. With the Consent Decree in place, DPW began analyzing 1,400 miles of sewage infrastructure and discovered that the 12-foot pipe funneling 75 percent of the Baltimore-area’s sewage into the Back River plant is broken. The net effect is that the main drain into the plant is constricted causing sewage backups up to ten miles underground. The $350+ million bill is above and beyond Consent Decree expenses.
After years of planning, Baltimore City DPW Director Rudy S. Chow (Director since 2014) has committed the city to completing the “Headworks Project” by 2020. Baltimore City DPW forecasts the project’s completion will reduce sewage overflows by 80 percent. Once fixed, the last two open Jones Falls sewage overflow pipes will be closed.
Director Chow said, “Even though there was no mandate to correct this particular problem, I pushed for a solution that would finally provide a long-term fix. We will begin construction in 2016. The Headworks’ project happens to be a massive, expensive undertaking. But every action we take – from reducing the litter that enters our stormwater system to keeping Fat, Oil, and Grease (FOG) and other objects out of sewer lines – helps keep our neighborhoods and our waterways clean.”
3. Stormwater fees and projects: The Inner Harbor’s pollution woes aren’t just due to icky sewage. While Maryland focused on reducing Chesapeake Bay pollution (the flush fee and agriculture runoff), urban storm runoff pollution persisted. Legislated in 2012, the controversial stormwater fee builds a dedicated pot of cash to fund projects that reduce and clean polluted storm water runoff. Baltimore City alone collects $24 million each year and has invested in stormwater remediation projects. From replacing hard pavement with impervious solutions, planting rain gardens and trees, adding storm drain grates at waterway inlets, to restoring the Stoney Run, Maidens Choice and Moores Run, Baltimore’s goal is to divert and/or clean our urban grime and trash runoff.
4. Mr. Trash Wheel: Sponsored and managed by the Waterfront Partnership, the Inner Harbor Water Wheel funnels trash from the Jones Falls River up into the water wheels conveyor belt and into a trash barges. DPW hauls the trash to the incinerator. Mr. Trash Wheel puts in plain sight the insane amount of trash that flows into the harbor. Since 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel has collected 406 TONS of foam cups, plastic bags and bottles, and litter. The 7 million recovered cigarette butts explain the Waterfront Partnership’s new cigarette butt recycling program. Clearwater Mills LLC is gearing up with the Waterfront Partnership to launch a second trash interceptor wheel in the Canton area.
5. New trash cans and street sweeping: Expanded in 2014, all city streets are now swept twice a month. Each year street sweepers collect about 20,000 tons of trash and leaves. Unfortunately, the need for street sweeping, downtown trash picker-uppers, and alley cleaning is huge because many city homeowners don’t properly use trash cans. Piloted in 2014, not only was street litter reduced when neighborhoods received free trash cans, but calls for vector control (rats) dropped 75 percent. Plastic trash bags left curbside are ideal “rat cafeterias.” Now that every Baltimore household will soon get a covered, durable trash can, people need to use them.
6. Pretty and green infrastructure: The most positive news is the significant amount of resources and talent focused on adding natural landscape infrastructure into city areas. Intended to collect and filter rain run off, a significant coalition of non-profit groups have partnered to install rain gardens, clean up alleys, stencil stormwater drains, install rain barrels, build pocket parks, support community gardens, and plant loads of trees to increase our city’s tree canopy.
Blue Water Baltimore and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake innovative Blue Water Congregations initiative pulls Baltimore’s 900+ faith-based groups into the solution. Planning, design, funding and technical expertise is offered to help congregations finance and build stormwater remediation projects that also reduce their fees. Add Tree Baltimore, Parks & People, Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, Chesapeake Bay Trust, and the Choose Clean Water Coalition, and many organizations are working together to help Baltimore’s communities plan, install and fund green projects.
Blue Water Baltimore Executive Director Halle Van der Gaag has been working for years to restore Baltimore’s waterways health. “The momentum is finally building with better and stronger collaboration between DPW, the Waterfront Partnership, environmental groups, and the community. It seems that the right the people and expertise are in place, and everyone is committed to doing what it takes to make Baltimore waterways cleaner.” said Van der Gaag.
7. Pipes, grates and a new Consent Decree: Baltimore’s DPW, MDE and the EPA are back at the table negotiating a new Consent Decree. In 14 years, the $500 million spent so far has paid for inspecting all large sewer pipes, closing 60 of 62 overflow drains, mapping the system, inspecting the area’s 3,000+ manholes, piloting storm drain grate systems, cleaning sewer lines, and retrofitting 163 miles of new pipes. Baltimore City reports that $210 million worth of sewage projects are in progress.
Another factor playing into the revised decree is that Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and many environmental groups, are demanding that the Headworks project be included in the agreement, that project success be tied to improved water quality, and overall project reporting and information is more transparent.
Good or Bad? We Shall See
Given past results, healthy skepticism is warranted when it comes to forecasting the likelihood that the Inner Harbor will be swimmable and fishable by 2020. That’s the date the Healthy Harbor Plan set forth for significant declines in trash and bacteria levels. But, if we look to other cities that have cleaned up their waterfronts (Boston, Atlanta, and LA), best practices exist for Baltimore to emulate.
Residents can also do their part. Keeping fats, oils, grease and rags from entering your drains is a big help in keeping city sewer lines clear. Being a do-gooder and picking up trash and properly disposing for those few who struggle with trash etiquette helps our community sparkle. Hopefully in the near future, the Inner Harbor will not only offer paddle boat rides, but maybe stand up paddlers will also be able to safely paddle the harbor while fish swim nearby in cleaner and healthier waters.