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Harbor posts failing grades in water quality report card again, pushing 'swimmable' goal further out of reach

Baltimore's harbor got another failing grade for water quality in 2015. Will it be swimmable by 2020?

The Inner Harbor and tidal Patapsco River posted failing grades in a water quality report card for a third consecutive year in 2015, casting doubt on a goal to make the waterways safe for swimming and fishing by the end of the decade.

"The harbor is alive, but it is not doing well," said Adam Lindquist, manager of the Healthy Harbor Initiative for the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which publishes the report card. "Any reasonable person would have questions about whether or not we're going to be able to swim in the Baltimore harbor in 2020."

The primary concerns continue to be fecal bacteria from the city's aged and leaking sewage system and pollutants that flow into the harbor when it rains.

There were signs of slight improvement in some pollutants, but not enough to change grades for the harbor and Jones Falls from an F.

City leaders and business and environmental groups in 2010 set a goal of having a "swimmable, fishable harbor" within a decade. Now, more than halfway to 2020, with so much work left to be done to keep sewage and contaminated stormwater out of the harbor, the say the goal may be out of reach.

"Obviously it's not terribly surprising, but it certainly is disappointing," said Terry Cummings, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Baltimore Initiative.

Still, the healthy harbor advocates maintained optimism in an event Monday outside the former Eastern Avenue Pumping Station, later developed into the Baltimore Public Works Museum.

"It's not a time to be discouraged," Michael Hankin, president of the waterfront partnership and CEO of Fells Point investment firm Brown Advisory.

For the first time since the report card initiative launched in 2013, one waterway did not receive a failing grade: The Gwynns Falls received a D.

Measures of dissolved oxygen in the harbor also improved, contributing to a decrease in the large fish kills that occur when algae blooms die and create dead zones devoid of oxygen.

"Though we are far from where we need to be, we are not giving up," state Del. Brooke Lierman, who represents all of the neighborhoods that touch the harbor, said.

Despite the pollution, Lindquist said, the harbor is teeming with life — National Aquarium volunteers counted 130 species of fish, crustaceans, birds and insects — and with activity, including fly-fishing in the Jones Falls and kayaking and paddle boarding in the harbor.

"There's a lot going on that people aren't necessarily aware of," he said.

Throughout the year, volunteers gathered 569 water samples from 49 sites across the Jones and Gwynns falls, the middle and northwest branches of the Patapsco River and its main stem leading out to the Chesapeake Bay.

Officials said the data provides a detailed picture of the health of the harbor watershed, but it's not enough to reach any conclusions regarding whether conditions are improving.

"A D range is still not acceptable," said David Flores, the Baltimore harbor waterkeeper whose organization, Blue Water Baltimore, gathers the data each year. "It's not where we need to be or want to be in terms of water quality."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has expressed support for the 2020 goal. A spokesman for the mayor did not respond to a request for comment.

When the Waterfront Partnership unveiled its "healthy harbor" plan in 2011, officials called for policies including a statewide plastic bag fee and bottle deposit system, the creation of special water funds using money from penalties and fines, and the development of a municipal utility that could collect fees for stormwater management.

"We believe we can do it, and for the first time think it's practicable," Hankin told The Baltimore Sun at the time.

But five years later, efforts to ban plastic bags at the state level have failed repeatedly. The city approved a controversial five-cent bottle tax in 2012. Lawmakers in Baltimore County have voted to phase out the state-mandated stormwater runoff fees for property owners that opponents call the "rain tax."

In last year's report card, the harbor advocates emphasized the importance of a nearly $500 million project to improve the flow of sewage into the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in any effort to clean up the harbor.

The project would install hydraulics to eliminate a 10-mile backup of sewage caused by a misaligned 12-foot main. It is scheduled to be completed by 2020.

Lindquist said addressing the problem is a priority.

"Not only does it contribute to massive sewer overflows of millions and millions of gallons into the Jones Falls, but also to sewage backups in peoples' homes," he said.

Advocates aren't giving up on the 2020 goal.

"We're hopeful we can address these issues in time to make the 2020 deadline," said Cummings, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It's approaching quite rapidly and work isn't being done quite as quickly as we would like."

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