Mixed improvements recorded in Baltimore’s waterways in 2017, including less poop, per new report

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Mr. Trash Wheel collects waste at the mouth of the Jones Falls. Photo by Nick Normal, via Flickr.

In a very welcome change from 2016, fecal bacteria levels improved drastically in many areas of Baltimore’s harbor and streams, according to findings published today by the nonprofit Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. Still, it remains to be seen if that’s part of a larger trend.

The organization’s newest Healthy Harbor Initiative report, unveiled at a press conference downtown this morning, says human waste levels improved at 32 of 49 sampling sites around the Baltimore harbor and its tributaries. Blue Water Baltimore tested the sites for fecal matter from May through September of last year.

The Waterfront Partnership has published a “report card” for the harbor in past years, but rebranded its annual findings as the Harbor Heartbeat and factored in additional water-quality indicators for this year.

The Jones Falls saw the most overall improvement in terms of fecal matter, with seven of 13 testing sites recording levels that meet the standard for safe swimming—a chief endgoal that the Healthy Harbor Initiative is chasing for Baltimore’s “crown jewel”—at least 80 percent of the time they were tested.

In a phone interview, Adam Lindquist, the Healthy Harbor Initiative’s executive director, highlighted that the mouth of the Jones Falls in the harbor, where our waste often surges into the mouth of Mr. Trash Wheel, tested as safe for swimming in 50 percent of tests. The same area recorded a score of zero in 2015 and 20 in 2016, he said.

Even so, the nonprofit needs more time and results to prove that harbor water quality is truly improving.

“We’re optimistic today that some there are some results, but we need more years of data before we know if this is part of a larger trend or not,” Lindquist said.

Humans are the chief cause of the harbor’s woes. Our waste regularly flows into the waterway through the city’s vastly outdated sewer system’s structured outfalls, which release sewer water when the pipes become inundated with rain.

But under federal court order, the city has been working for years to eliminate those structured outfalls, with a goal to reduce overflows by 80 percent by the end of 2020. And crucially, Department of Public Works crews have broken ground on the $430 million Headworks project at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County. The effort involves installing new hydraulic pumps, storage tanks and other infrastructure to eliminate a miles-long sewage backup contributing to those recurring overflows.

Data from this year’s report hints it might be paying off, even if sewage is stilling flowing out by the millions of gallons. The Healthy Harbor Initiative reports 18.2 million gallons of sewage overflowed from 12 locations in 2017, but the overall number of reported overflows has dropped by 20 percent since 2015.

Asked if the data indicate sewer-system fixes are paying off already, Lindquist said, “We definitely don’t have enough data to make that conclusion, but certainly the city has more than doubled their capacity to fix sewer leaks in the system.” The ongoing work on Headworks “is huge,” he added.

Some other key findings from the report:

  • Turbidity, or the haziness of water, continued to improve from past years in the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls, which Lindquist called “traditionally good performers.” However, it declined in the harbor and tidal areas of the Patapsco River.
  • Conductivity, which measures levels of salt and chemicals harmful to aquatic life, remains a thorny issue. The report points to “over-application of road salts,” polluted stormwater runoff and sewage as factors.
  • Scores for nitrogen, water quality and chlorophyll all declined slightly after improving in 2016, per data collected by Blue Water Baltimore.
  • Baltimore’s tree canopy grew by 1 percent in 2017, which Lindquist called “a phenomenal improvement” compared to most U.S. communities that are losing tree cover.

Lindquist said with certainty that more stormwater projects will create demonstrable improvements in our waterways. The report points to a study by Blue Water Baltimore, the United States Geological Survey and the nonprofit Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York tied increases in such projects to reduction in some pollutants in the Gwynns Falls.

Stormwater projects include planting more native plants and trees, rain gardens and other forms of land cover that serve as natural filters for water and reduce runoff into waterways, Lindquist said. In addition to filtration and less runoff, he said they produce a “three-fold benefit” by bringing more greenery to communities.

Poignantly, he suggested, those efforts “are the same sort of projects that would prevent flooding like the flooding we see in Ellicott City.”

Click here to read the latest Healthy Harbor Initiative report in full.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
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