Heavy rains routinely trigger big sewage overflows in Baltimore, but there is growing evidence that chronic leaks from the region's aging, cracked sewer lines are a bigger threat to public health.
Though storm-fed spills can be dramatic, Baltimore's' streams and harbor are also fouled on sunny days as storm drains yield grayish discharges that look and smell like sewage. That is what they are. Even the nearly $2 billion overhaul under way on the 3,100 miles of sewer lines in the city and Baltimore County won't be enough to make those waters safe, experts and activists say.
Leaks allow raw sewage to seep into storm drain pipes, which funnel rain from streets, parking lots and buildings into nearby waterways. In some cases, the waste is being piped directly into storm drains through illegal connections. But mostly it dribbles from fissures and breaks in an underground network that includes century-old brickwork.
"It's incredible to me that in 2011 we have raw sewage leaking," said Michael Hankin, an investment executive who chairs the Waterfront Partnership, a group of Inner Harbor businesses and nonprofit organizations pushing to clean up area waters. "Over in Gwynns Run," he added, referring to a stream flowing through Carroll Park, "kids play in it. How could that be?"
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is scheduled to join the partnership Wednesday in releasing a plan to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. The blueprint is expected to call for increased efforts to curb trash, sewage and other pollutants that foul the Northwest and Middle branches of the Patapsco River, which make up Baltimore's harbor.
But Hankin and others warn that unless the chronic sewage leaks are dealt with, there's little chance to achieve the goal of a "healthy harbor."
"It doesn't take a lot of sewage to contaminate a stream or harbor," said William P. Stack, deputy director of the Center for Watershed Protection, a nonprofit in Ellicott City that works with communities to clean up their waters. Before joining the center last year, Stack spent more than 30 years dealing with the effects of sewage leaks and spills in Baltimore's Department of Public Works.
City and county officials say they would do more about the leaks but are hampered by limited budgets as well as state and federal regulatory requirements to focus on other water quality issues.
"Ideally, if we had all the funding in the world, we could address everything," said Kimberly L. Burgess, chief of surface water management in the city's Department of Public Works. "But we get constrained by having to meet the mandates we have right now."
The city and Baltimore County are bound under consent decrees with state and federal regulators to halt their sewage overflows or face stiff fines. Officials say they are making progress, but the city has reported more than 360 overflows this year, spilling more than 10 million gallons of untreated wastewater into area waters. Baltimore County has tallied 148 overflows that dumped nearly 152 million gallons — two-thirds of it in a spill after a large sewer pipe blew out during Hurricane Irene in August.
The city says it will spend $1 billion by 2016 to repair its sewer system, and the county expects to spend nearly $1 billion by 2020. They also face mandates to curb polluted storm water washing off streets, parking lots and roofs.
Officials at the Center for Watershed Protection and others say the consent decrees are aimed only at halting overflows from the largest sewer lines and contend it is short-sighted not to deal with leaks from the smaller pipes that make up the bulk of the system.
Sewage discharges are a significant source of the nutrient pollution that periodically triggers algae blooms and fish kills in the harbor and the Chesapeake Bay, according to the center. Stack says up to 15 percent of the nitrogen in urban watersheds could stem from failing infrastructure.
"One small leak can deliver hundreds of pounds of nutrients over the course of a year," said Lori Lilly, an ecologist at the Center for Watershed Protection.
The center's samplings of area streams and storm drains have been eye-opening for federal officials directing the bay restoration effort, who have had a hard time accounting for nutrient pollution in some waters.
"There's always been this disconnect with what good science says is coming off the streets compared to what's in our streams," said Richard Batiuk, associate director of the bay program office for the Environmental Protection Agency. "The missing piece could be those illicit discharges."
Consultants with the center teamed up last year with city and county employees and environmental activists to slog 18 miles of streams in the city and Baltimore County, checking for dry-weather discharges from 81 storm drain outlets. They detected sewage and other pollution in four out of five.
"We found a bunch of hot spots," said Lilly, who led the center's sampling effort. At some, they saw broken sewer pipes leaking grayish water and bits of toilet paper into the stream. In other cases, the water coming from storm drain outlets smelled of sewage or a test detected ammonia, a chemical ingredient of urine.
A water hazard in Carroll Park
David Flores, restoration manager for Blue Water Baltimore, a watershed watchdog group, periodically checks water quality at storm drain outlets in the streams feeding into the harbor.
Recently, along Gwynns Run at the city-owned golf course in Southwest Baltimore's Carroll Park, musty odors grew stronger as he plowed through bushes bordering the stream. The banks were lined with rubbish — plastic bags, candy wrappers, broken glass, a baby stroller and a few golf balls. The water flowing by was greenish-gray.
"This contaminated outfall has been reported by citizens groups for years," Flores said, before donning latex gloves and knee boots to approach the water. Bacteria counts in samples taken there generally are "off the charts," he said.
The sample he took that day came back from the laboratory with a preliminary reading of more than 2,400 colonies of E. coli bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. (E. coli usually do not cause disease, but are an indicator of the presence of human or animal waste.) That level is up to 10 times higher than the limit set by the EPA for swimming and several times higher than is considered safe for even infrequent contact.
Even so, the stream attracts people. On the day Flores took his sample, Charles Swarthout, 56, showed up to scavenge for treasure amid the trash. He said he once found a ring there that brought $90 at a pawnshop.
Periodic samples by the city over the past three years at Gwynns Run — a tributary of the Gwynns Falls, which feeds into the Middle Branch — have consistently shown unsafe levels of bacteria. The highest readings occur during or just after rainstorms, reaching 500,000 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters in one sample. Even in dry weather, bacteria counts go from the low thousands up to 240,000 colonies per 100 milliliters — indicators of ongoing leaks or discharges of waste into the storm drain network feeding the stream.
Though bacteria counts are generally highest just after rainstorms, Flores considers the dry-weather contamination a more serious health threat because that's when people are more likely to fish, paddle or wade in the water.
Gwynns Run is one of the most contaminated waterways in the city. But all of the two dozen stretches checked by the city on the Gwynns Falls, the Jones Falls and Herring Run frequently register unsafe bacteria levels in dry weather, according to data from Department of Public Works.
City officials attribute many of the leaks to aging, failing infrastructure.
"If you've got a 100-year-old storm drain that's next to an 80-year-old water main that's leaking and about to burst, next to an 80- or 90-year-old sewer that has various cracks and leaks, they all have inflow in and out of each other," said Burgess, of the city's Department of Public Works.
Hunting for leaks
Finding and fixing all of the problems is daunting. The city has 1,400 miles of sanitary sewers, the county 1,700 miles, spread across the region like veins in a person's body. They pipe wastewater from homes and businesses to the two large treatment plants that kill the bacteria and remove pollutants before discharging largely clean water into the Patapsco and Back rivers. More than 50,000 storm drains funnel rain runoff to 1,700 outfalls.
The city's Public Works Department has a crew assigned to track sewage discharges from stream to source. One rainless morning this fall, the three-man team stopped at East Chase Street and North Milton Avenue in East Baltimore and pried up a manhole cover to expose a storm drain pipe a dozen feet below the street.
A quick test of the water revealed the presence of ammonia. The crew checked a map on a laptop computer showing the location of sewer and storm drain lines, then walked a half block and opened another manhole to expose a brick-lined sewer pipe. They placed a packet of nontoxic dye in the sewer, and traces of the dye appeared about 20 minutes later in the storm pipe. A test confirmed the presence of the dye — evidence that sewage was seeping into the storm drain system in that block.
The crew spied a spot where sewage seemed to be leaking into the storm pipe. Using a small video camera and light mounted on the end of a long pole stuck down the storm drain manhole, they saw a dark stain along what appeared to be a joint in the terra cotta pipe.
Van Sturtevant, the pollution control analyst leading the team, said the apparent leak would be reported to the wastewater branch of Public Works for a follow-up investigation and repair.
The city has seven workers who monitor the harbor and the streams that feed into it or into Back River. Five spend part of their time tracking sewage leaking into storm drains. Last year, the group performed dozens of checks for sewage or other contamination, according to city records, but the frequency of screening has declined in recent years.
"We're doing the best we can with the resources we have," Burgess said, noting that the city's stream sampling program is approved by the state.
The pollution trackers have traced sewage discharges in storm pipes to homes, apartment buildings and businesses where sanitary waste lines were connected to storm drains. Usually, though, the waste getting into storm drains is found seeping from cracked or broken sewer pipes.
Either way, the discharge is considered illegal. The city launched 109 investigations of suspected illicit discharges last year, according to a Department of Public Works report. The agency documented 59 "sewage discharges of unknown origin" over the past several years, according to another report, and has been able to resolve a little over half of them.
One was at Johns Hopkins University, which recently completed $300,000 worth of repairs on two sewer line breaks under the Homewood campus that were sending contaminants into storm drains and then into the Jones Falls. The leak was first spotted four years ago, according to Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works.
Investigations are time-consuming and complicated.
"It's like squeezing a balloon," Stack says. "You fix one and another one appears."
Flores, of Blue Water Baltimore, says that "at the level of contamination we're seeing in Baltimore's streams, we need to ramp up our effort in detecting and investigating these small and persistent discharges from stormwater outfalls." He contends that hundreds of outfalls have never been screened.
The city spends about $50,000 a year to trace sewage leaks in storm drains, according to the Department of Public Works. That's part of more than $13 million budgeted for water quality management, including street-sweeping and cleaning out storm drains.
Although finding sewage leaks poses a challenge, repairs are not always costly, according to the watershed center. Estimates range from $10,000 to $50,000 per fix in many cases, which Stack says compares favorably with the costs of ripping up pavement and retrofitting storm drains to reduce stormwater runoff.
"Rain gardens in a backyard only buy you so much," Stack said. "So the question is, what is more beneficial to water quality — controlling larger, infrequent storm [overflows] that might have an impact but are short-lived? Or spending the money to address the smaller, more long-lasting leaks? I'd vote for the latter."
Batiuk, the EPA official, said that if the scope of sewage leaks could be better quantified, and a program mapped out to fix them, regulators might be willing to factor them into pollution cleanup requirements.
To Hankin, head of the Waterfront Partnership and president of Brown Advisory, it's inconceivable that finding and fixing sewage leaks should take a back seat to other anti-pollution efforts.
With the city already spending $1 billion just to fix storm-related sewage overflows, he said, "it's tragic to spend that much money and not move the ball farther down the field."