Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Photo by soomness.
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Photo by soomness.

Baltimore’s waterways remain in poor health with high levels of salts and chemicals in streams, but bacteria trends are showing signs of improvement in some locations, according to Blue Water Baltimore’s annual report card.

Blue Water Baltimore, a waterway restoration nonprofit, on Wednesday released its 2020 Water Quality Report Card analyzing water quality at 49 monitoring stations in the Baltimore region.

Overall water quality scores are based on how each station scores on various measurements such as temperature, bacteria, water clarity, pH, and levels of phosphorus, nitrogen, salt and other chemicals.

A score of 90 to 100 percent means the water quality is considered “very good”; 80 to 89 percent means “good”; 70 to 79 percent means “moderate” or “fair”; 60 to 69 percent means “poor”; and 0 to 59 percent means “very poor.”

The Gwynn Falls watershed, the Jones Falls watershed, the Baltimore Harbor and the tidal Patapsco River all earned overall scores between 50 and 56 percent.

And although the marks for the Gwynn Falls and Jones Falls watersheds increased between 2018 and 2019, the overall scores for the Baltimore Harbor and the tidal Patapsco River decreased during that same period.

Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Alice Volpitta, who directs Blue Water Baltimore’s water quality monitoring program, wrote that one of the primary factors that contributed to the low scores for non-tidal waterways is poor levels of conductivity, the measurement of salts and chemicals in streams.

Road salts, sediment, polluted stormwater runoff and sewage flows can all make their way into streams, harming fish and other organisms and contributing to poor conductivity levels.

In the seven to 10 years for which Blue Water Baltimore has data at its 49 monitoring stations, the nonprofit has seen “significantly improving” bacterial trends at 34 of those sites, Volpitta wrote.

She said the nonprofit is unsure exactly why bacteria are improving at those sites, but sewer replacement and relining projects that are reducing the amount of sewage flowing into waterways could have contributed to the trend.

Yet while some stations are showing signs of bacteria improvement, they are still often too polluted for people to use for recreation, Volpitta wrote.

“The fact that these sites are showing significantly improving trends means we are moving in the right direction, but we have more work to do,” she said.

Nitrogen, phosphorous, water clarity and conductivity are worsening at about half of the region’s non-tidal stations. For example, nitrogen levels are worsening at 11 out of 13 stations in the Jones Falls watershed, Volpitta said

She wrote that the Baltimore region is “missing the mark” in its approach to stormwater management as current policies and practices fail to keep pace with the effects of climate change, suburban growth and increased development.

“We desperately need to reduce the amount of polluted stormwater runoff that is still degrading the health of Baltimore’s streams,” Volpitta said.

The nonprofit recommends increasing funding from the City Stormwater Utility Fee to pay to install more green stormwater infrastructure projects, like tree plantings and rain gardens.

“What we’re doing now isn’t working… We must act now in a major course correction if we want to see lasting improvements in ecological health,” she said.

People can access Blue Water Baltimore’s report cards from 2011 to 2019 on the nonprofit’s website.

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at