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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.  

The 2015 Healthy Harbor Report Card shows improvement for Harbor, Patapsco, and Gwynns Falls waterays. But the Jones Falls River declined.
The 2015 Healthy Harbor Report Card shows improvement for Baltimore Harbor, Patapsco, and Gwynns Falls waterways, but the Jones Falls River’s score declined.

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.

Located near the National Aquarium, litter that would float in the harbor gets funneled into the water wheel and tossed in the trash.
Located near the National Aquarium, litter that would have floated away in the harbor, now gets funneled into the water wheel and tossed in the trash.

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.

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.

13 replies on “7 Big Ideas That Just May Clean Up Baltimore’s Inner Harbor”

  1. Regarding trash pick up, I wonder why it is a common practice in many neighborhoods for the guys to pull the bags out of cans and pile them up for pick up hours later, leaving the bags sitting in the sun. It might be more efficient, but animals break open bags in broad daylight too.

  2. isn’t it amazing that we can do so much but not take care of the overflow of sewage. so gross, really.

  3. As a resident and business owner in Fells Point since 1988 and a boat owner, this is always of interest to me. Fantastic article summarizes all of the efforts. There is no shortage of frustration that is isn’t already done, but at least the path is outlined. Well written.

  4. I walked along the Canton waterfront today as I often do and felt the water looked much cleaner than usual. I see the street sweeper trucks in Canton but they are unable to properly sweep because there are no signs indicating when sweeping takes place. Cars are parked; no sweeping happens

    1. Love your email address: I checked in with the City DPW and asked where to find each area’s street sweeping schedule. Go to:, and enter neighborhood, Category “city service”, then street sweeping. Canton’s streets are swept 1st and 2nd Wed ea. month according to CityView. City rep mentioned the core area’s swept each week have signs, others don’t. I wonder if we should push for street signs everywhere that make people move their cars on sweeping days? Other cities do… Seems smart? Ok, add that to the list…

  5. The inner harbor is a festering swamp. For boaters, you are almost guaranteed to clog up intakes with plastic bags, or hit floating sections of pier. Last month when I had my boat hauled, I had plastic six pack rings wrapped around my props, and styrofoam particles on my waterline. I cannot recommend bringing a boat into the harbor its so polluted and gross.

  6. These are all great ideas and will have an impact on the Inner Harbor. But until they plans include a project to clean up the human waste created by the boaters in the city, the Harbor will never be swimmable or fishable. While discharging human waste is illegal, the boating community is not policed. There are pump out stations funded by the state throughout the city available for the transient boaters. However, Baltimore has over 300 boats with “live aboards” year round. The pump out stations are closed from November to April. Waterfront Partnership, Blue Water Baltimore, the city of Baltimore and the state through DNR (Department of Natural Resources) are all aware of this situation as I have met with all of them to discuss this.
    We found a solution in offering free pump outs to the boaters. We created a non-profit: Baltimore Pump Out for Clean Water. However, there is no funding available at this time to address the problem in full. If the boaters had free pump outs, no one would be illegally discharging their waste and, along with the 7 projects mentioned in your article, the Harbor would indeed become swimmable.

  7. In response, to your most recent article “7 Big Ideas That May Just Clean Up Baltimore’s Inner Harbor”, you are overlooking the huge problem of human waste from recreational boaters directly discharged into the Inner Harbor.

    As a business owner who works on the waters of the Inner Harbor every day, I see first-hand the problem as it exists. We have been in contact with the Executive Directors of the Waterfront Partnership and Bluewater Baltimore for the past several years with little to no response. We have been informed in writing by both organizations that the problem “does not exist” because it is illegal. I felt we were not being taken seriously because my company was a for-profit business and operated a pump-out service that goes to boats in their slip with a pump-out boat and removes the waste from their holding tanks. We, in turn, legally pump-out our boat out at state-approved pump-out stations in the Inner Harbor.

    I felt so strongly about this problem that I created a nonprofit corporation at a huge personal expense and received an IRS 501 C 3 approval. We felt that if we could offer free pump-outs to the boaters of the city that would resolve this problem. I seated a team as a Board of Directors consisting of a Biologist, a Doctor of Environmental Science, Masters in Toxicology, two successful Baltimore businesswomen and myself. The Baltimore Pump Out For Clean Water Inc. would now be taken seriously and we could begin to address the problem.

    We approached the Waterfront Partnership and Bluewater Baltimore again as a nonprofit and the reception was no different. We had gathered quite a list of facts for presentation but it did not seem to matter. Among the list of facts, all easily checked, is the quantity of live aboard boaters in the Inner Harbor who do not move their boats. These boats require a pump-out service to empty their holding tanks. Last year’s count was over 300 full-time live aboards. There are over 2400 boat slips in the Patapsco River including the Inner Harbor. In the summer months, the amount of people on their boats could be 1000 or more on a given day. Another fact is that the pump out stations at every single Baltimore marina are closed and winterized from November 1st until April 15th and so unavailable for use. So the question is what does one do with their holding tanks of human waste for five months a year? This single fact alone got the Baltimore Pump Out For Clean Water Inc. an approved grant offer from the Maryland DNR.

    The DNR (Department of Natural Resources) offered a small grant to run the pump out boat throughout the summer. We had to respectfully decline the grant from the DNR for several reasons, but the primary reason was as follows:
    The grant money comes from the Federal Government through Fish and Wildlife, funded by the Sportfish Recreation Fund by means of fuel taxes. It is written that live aboard boaters do not use fuel, pay fuel taxes and can’t receive funded pump-out service. Secondly, we would not be allowed to use our “funded” pump-out boat for any other purpose. In summary, the DNR recognizes that there are live aboards in Baltimore and that they do not move their boats. Therefore, they cannot have their holding tanks emptied without hiring a pump-out boat to come directly to them. Also, the pump-out stations in the city are unavailable for five months a year to any boaters. But because of the funding to the DNR, free pump-outs can be offered to the transient boaters but not the live-aboard boaters. There is no way to prevent boaters from discharging waste illegally.

    Petersen Marine Service currently operates a pump-out boat all year but contracts less than 10% of the verified live aboard boaters and less than 2% of the weekend or recreational boaters. The first “Inner Harbor Master Plan” had wording in it requiring all marinas in the city to have their Dockmasters (marina managers) to have on file the signed pump-out contacts for all live a board boaters. This was never enforced and was dropped out of the “Inner Harbor Master Plan 2.0”.

    We monitor the elapsed time hour meters on all the fixed pump-out stations in the Inner Harbor that have them and the hours are astonishing low. Some are under 100 hours and have been installed for years. With the 10% and 2% of the boaters we pump out with our pump-out boat, we log over 150 hours elapsed time per year. It would be inconceivable to think people do not use their toilet while on their boat.

    The complete list of facts are almost unbelievable, the State of Maryland DNR by means of a grant offer has verified the problem exists. Also, the City of Baltimore, Waterfront Partnership and Blue Water Baltimore are aware of this situation. I do not down play your seven ideas, but you’re not on the water every day, and you don’t recognize the scope of the problem. Not one-word “boat” or “boaters” in your article. Promoting street fairs, Christmas Shops, and Light Shows do nothing for the cleanup of the Inner Harbor. The Water Wheel, awesome! When the absolute pipe dream of swimming in the harbor is finally made public, that it just can’t be done, and Under Armour can’t promote a triathlon, I can say with conviction that I have brought the facts to everyone’s attention for years, and nothing was done.

    The Waterfront Partnership advertises it consists of Baltimore’s key business leaders, environmental non-profits, foundations and technical experts yet the Baltimore Pump Out for Clean Water, Inc. or Petersen Marine Service LLC have never been invited to a meeting, offered to be part of the partnership for their dedication to the resolution of the problem. In fact, not even acknowledged.

    As quoted in the third paragraph of your article “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.” I would comment you may have a better understanding but not complete and a piece of the puzzle is missing. Perhaps the scope of the Waterfront Partnerships Mission is too broad to even be marginally effective.

    1. Glenn and Ann: Thank you for your time and information about the catch-22 and inefficiencies surrounding live-in and recreational boaters using the harbor illegally as their toilet. It seems you have hit on the 8th big idea, and I applaud you both for rolling up your sleeves. And, I can appreciate your frustration. I did speak with both the Waterfront Partnership and Blue Water Baltimore and they concur with both your and Ann’s data, and also that a reasonable solution is needed for boats to legally unload their sewage. David Flores at Blue Water Baltimore ( said he and Ann had a productive meeting last year in going over the issues, and he seems like the first person to contact. I am also going to email you both directly with a few other ideas and groups that I think can add support and expertise to navigate the landscape. A solution does exist (better enforcement, change in the funding guidelines?) and our harbor appreciates your passion. I’ll stay on this topic, too.

    2. Prioritizing with limited resources is never easy. I am grateful to you and every one else who gives their time and money to help make our harbor better.

    3. -The vast majority of Baltimore boaters – liveaboard or not – care deeply about water quality in the Inner Harbor and they know sewage discharge is illegal and has terrible impacts on water quality. It is deeply frowned upon in the boating community. To imply that boaters are doing this regularly is just not true – we have thousands of boaters we interact with every season and their number 1 complaint in the Inner Harbor is the water quality, we get feedback constantly on trash/clarity/etc. This is the major reason we are involved in the CBF’s programs and were so excited about the Water Wheel project.

      -Winter: pump-outs are winterized from Mid-November (or even December) – March or earlier (all weather dependent), not 5 months (at our facilities at least) AND boaters must also winterize their boats during this period or they run the risk of sinking their vessel when temps drops. So – liveaboards use the bath house located at the marina, they’re not pumping overboard because they can’t use it anyway in winter.

      -Boat movements: it’s really easy to move a boat to the pump-out location and people do this regularly. All vessels (at least at our Marinas) are required to be operational and sometimes they may not move often, but they do to pump out. We also do have in our marina rules and contracts that discharges are illegal and we can cancel a slip contract if they are discovered doing this.

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