Photo by soomness, via Flickr

Despite heavy rainfalls last year that sent millions of gallons of sewage into the harbor, a new report card published today by the Waterfront Partnership found that the level of fecal bacteria in Baltimore’s harbor actually declined from 2017 to 2018.

In the Baltimore region’s portion of the Patapsco River basin, which covers the Inner Harbor downtown to the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay, samples taken by Blue Water Baltimore showed the level of fecal bacteria was acceptable for swimming 100 percent of the time in most areas.

Of the 22 testing sites, 16 met the acceptable level in every sample, with the remaining six hitting the 80 percent threshold.

In the Jones Falls Watershed, which has several branches in Baltimore County and runs all the way to the Inner Harbor, scores declined in several places, but inside the city line, four sites were found to be acceptable for swimming 80 percent of the time–and Stony Run, which connects with the Jones Falls, had perfect scores.

Two sites in Baltimore County portion of the watershed–the North Branch of the Jones Falls and a portion of Roland Run–had samples that passed only 60 percent of the time. The other five had positive tests in 80 percent of cases or higher.

The news was not as good in the Gwynns Falls Watershed in the western portion of the city and county, where three sites had passing rates less than half the time. In one site, Powder Mill Run, no tests showed the water was fit for human recreation.

Overall, the report paints a positive outlook for the harbor.

“In 2017 fecal bacteria scores had improved dramatically across the Harbor and streams in the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls watersheds,” the report says. “Despite the high volume of sewer overflows in 2018, bacteria scores for the streams have remained relatively high for the second year in a row.”

Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, knows these scores sound counterintuitive in the wake of the historic rains.

But as he explained, there are two reasons why sewage seeps into the harbor: leaky or broken old pipes and the downpours that overwhelm city sewers and send waste into the Jones Falls. The city and county have spent millions of dollars to address the former.

“It’s possible we’re seeing the results of those repairs in our bacteria numbers,” he said.

As for the Gwynns Falls, Lindquist said the group does not have a theory as to why the tests there did not fare as well, and advocates have asked city officials if there is any rationale for the poor results.

Today’s results advance one of the organization’s primary goals: the ability to take a dip.

“It gives us a lot of hope that we’ll be able to one day soon host a swimming event in the Baltimore Harbor,” he said.

There is one caveat. The 71 inches of rain last year prevented Blue Water Baltimore from taking samples on the wettest days. But as Lindquist points out, state officials do not recommend that people swim in fresh water 48 hours after a rainstorm, since stormwater run-off carries oil, trash, litter, rubber, dirt and other contaminants into waterways. In other words, the samples were taken during ideal conditions for recreational activities.

Today’s report points to the recently passed ban on styrofoam, greening projects, stream restorations and an initiative to bring more oysters to the Patapsco River as reasons for optimism.

But the biggest development is the continued progress on the Headworks Project, a $430 million effort to fix a 10-mile sewage backup under the streets of East Baltimore originating at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County.

According to the report, the new pipes and pumping station are 35 percent complete, and the project is on track to be finished by the end of 2020. Officials with the Department of Public Works estimate the new infrastructure will reduce annual sewage overflows by 83 percent.

“It’s amazing to have found one problem–even though it’s one big, expensive problem–that can impact our sewer overflows,” Lindquist said.

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore...