Something new is floating in the Inner Harbor. Not litter this time, but a space age-looking gadget meant to see whether new life can be breathed into the troubled body of water.

Local environmentalists and an engineering firm teamed up Thursday to place a Solar Bee, a sun-powered water-mixing device that resembles an old-fashioned satellite, off the end of the Recreation Pier in Fells Point. It will be anchored there for the next 21/2 months to test whether it can make even a small dent in the oxygen-starved "dead zone" in the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River every summer, stressing and killing fish.

The experiment in water restoration is a partnership between the watchdog groups Blue Water Baltimore and the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and KCI Technologies Inc., a large engineering firm with offices in Maryland. It is underwritten by a $100,000 grant from the Abell Foundation.

Thomas G. Sprehe, a senior vice president at KCI, called the project a form of "direct intervention" in easing the harbor's water woes. The device will attempt to restore oxygen to water that has been drained of the life-sustaining gas by pollution, including sewage, fertilizer and pet waste washing into feeder streams and storm drains.

"The patient is lying on the floor, gasping for oxygen," Sprehe said. "Give him oxygen, that's kind of the idea here."

The project is the latest initiative aimed at making the Inner Harbor fishable and swimmable, the goal set last year by the Waterfront Partnership, a coalition of harbor businesses, civic groups and institutions. Laurie Schwartz, the partnership's director, called the project "an exciting addition to the harbor."

But scientists and even the project's organizers caution that it's too early to say whether it will yield results.

"What we hope to do is make a measurable impact in a little portion of the dead zone," Sprehe said.

Using a solar-powered propeller, the Solar Bee draws cooler water to the surface from 12 to 15 feet below, where it will be exposed to air and absorb some oxygen. Later in the summer, Sprehe said his firm's staff will boost the device's mixing activity by adding an aerator to pump oxygen into the water.

Organizers will go out weekly to measure oxygen levels in the water. Based on that data, Sprehe said, engineers will be able to project how many such devices it might take, and what it might cost, to improve water quality over a larger area of the Inner Harbor.

Eric Schott, a research assistant professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, calls it a venture into "uncharted territory."

The Solar Bee has never been tried before in such waters, he said. The device has been used in freshwater lakes and reservoirs to fight growth of blue-green algae, a different problem than confronts the harbor.

But Schott said the device has potential, because the Inner Harbor is a kind of "backwater" where there's little current to mix the water and replenish oxygen levels that dip in summer.

The Solar Bee is not the first gadget to be tried on the harbor's stubborn water-quality problems.

Small floating wetlands were built last summer and put in the water near the World Trade Center and the National Aquarium, and there are plans to launch more. An "algae scrubber," a long sluiceway designed to remove water-fouling nutrients from the water, is expected to be tried this year.

Schott said such "technological solutions" might help, but they're no substitute for reducing the pollution flowing into the harbor from storm drains and streams that extend into the suburbs of Baltimore County.

"We can't continue to do what we do upstream and fill the harbor with Solar Bees," he said.

"We know this isn't going to solve all the problems," acknowledged Halle Van der Gaag, deputy director of Blue Water Baltimore. "But we're hoping it's one tool we'll be able to determine going forward what the next steps are."

And even if it doesn't pan out, Van der Gaag said, the device's presence on the busy Fells Point waterfront should prompt passers-by to think about the harbor's degraded condition and how careless lawn care and littering far upstream are contributing to it.

"We're hoping through this cool-looking device we're going to raise some awareness," she said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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