Harbor cleanup plan stirs hope - what now?

Hope, humor and determination abounded at the unveiling today of the "Healthy Harbor" plan. Now comes the hard part - following through, so kids like 12-year-olds Dana and Diamond Johnson can feel safe swimming and fishing in Baltimore's waters by the time they're adults.

The plan produced by the Waterfront Partnership - a coalition of businesses, nonprofit groups and city agencies - lays out a detailed roadmap for attacking the sewage, trash and storm-water runoff that makes the harbor and the region's streams risky for wading or other recreation. A clever slide show hammered home the goal of making the harbor swimable and fishable by 2020, portraying a series of civic and political leaders dressed in swimsuits and brandishing fishing poles. 

It got an enthusiastic reception from an overflow crowd of activists, civic leaders and city and Baltimore County officials who gathered at the Living Classrooms Foundation in Fells Point to hear about the plan.

"This is exciting stuff," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She didn't explicitly commit the city to the plan or any of its recommendations, broadlly hinted that she'd seek to put more municipal resources into the cleanup effort.

"In difficult economic times, it's never easy .. to ask our city, our citizens and our businesses, to invest and do more," she said.  But as you can see from the collection of partners we have here ..many agree that now is the time ... to take action and make investments in our city's future. ... The city cannot grow without well-maintained infrastructure."

Though Rawlings-Blake didn't specifically say so, her staff has been laying the groundwork to seek City Council approval of a storm-water fee that would raise funds for the storm-drain repairs and retrofits, the stream restorations and community greening projects the plan calls for. It's going to be a tough sell, but does have the backing of the business leaders of the Waterfront Partnership.

The mayor also spoke about the need for a public education campaign to change residents' attitudes and behavior toward litter, calling for a "cultural shift."

"We need to change the perception that so many hold that their actions won't make a difference," she said, "that it's okay to litter, that it's okay not to pick up your trash or pick up after your pet. ... Everyone can keep their yard, or their lot, or their block, clean. Every business can keep their storefront and sidewalk clean and their trash contained.  Everyone."

Appearances aren't everything, of course, but this was the third major harbor cleanup meeting the mayor has attended in the past year and a half. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz didn't show.  Vince Gardina, the county's director of environmental protection and sustainability, spoke in Kamenetz's stead, saying his boss had a scheduling conflict but supported the effort. 

County officials are working with the city on watershed issues, but apparently many suburban residents still seem to think the trash and sewage in the harbor is strictly an urban problem. It's worth noting that more than half the water flowing into the harbor comes from Baltimore County.  And as the new "state of the harbor" report released today mkes clear, unsafe levels of bacteria can be found in the upper reaches of the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls around Towson and Owings Mills. Trash likewise litters county as well as city waters.

William C. Dennison, vice president for the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which produced a report card showing the harbor and its watershed in poor health, said he thought the cleanup effort here should be the "focal point" of the larger campaign to restore the Chesapeake Bay.  The harbor is among the most degraded spots in the bay, he said, but also one of the most visible and accessible to the largest number of people.

To help keep the spotlight on the harbor's health, the Abell Foundation has awarded a $239,110 grant to Blue Water Baltimore, the local watershed watchdog group, and to the Waterfront Partnership to keep checking water quality over the next two years and produce annual updates of the report card that rates the health of the harbor and its watershed poor overall.

Among the parade of speakers who preached to the mostly green choir, none were more engaging than Dana and Diamond Johnson, two unrelated sixth graders at Crossroads School, a charter run by the classrooms foundation.  With one sporting a snorkeling mask and the other fly-fishing togs, they pledged to be personally involved in the cleanup effort and reminded the audience why it mattered. 

"I know people who like to fish, and they don't come here now. But I bet they would if it was clean," said Dana, who lives in Fells Point. 

But Diamond, who lives in northeast Baltimore, pointed out that the harbor's health is so shaky now that  the sliver of man-made marsh on the Living Classrooms campus must get replanted every year because the wetland grasses can't survive.

""This isn't going to be easy, especially in the early years," cautioned Mike Hankin, chairman of the Waterfront Partnership, who acknowledged that finding the funding needed to carry out the plan will be a struggle. But he said it was imperative because "the status quo is unacceptable.  We can do better."

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