Time to clean up our act regarding Baltimore's waterways

Baltimore faces urgent environmental problems that leadership must recognize.

Fed by waters from Gwynns Falls, the Patapsco River and thousands of rivers and streams throughout the region, the Chesapeake Bay is our national treasure. No one knows that better than Marylanders. In Baltimore, we think of summer crab feasts, and, not so long ago, fishing in the harbor and children splashing in the Jones Falls.

But we also recognize the pollution that fouls Baltimore's waterways and its many economic, human health and recreational costs. More than 30 years ago, our region's leaders committed to saving the bay. They have renewed that pledge four times since then, and they have yet to deliver on that promise. We the citizens pay the price of pollution.

It does not have to be this way. And it's well past time to move in earnest toward a healthier city, cleaner harbor and bay.

On Thursday, the executive council of the Chesapeake Bay Program — the six sitting governors (or their representatives) of the signatory states to the numerous Chesapeake Bay agreements, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency — will gather in Washington, D.C., for their annual meeting. Their decisions and actions will determine the near-term fate of the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, the mandatory federal/state commitment to restore water quality in Baltimore and throughout the region. The states are less than two years from the 2017 deadline for having 60 percent of Blueprint goals in place. And they are far behind where they promised they would be. Having succeeded in upgrading our major sewage treatment plants, the major remaining sources of pollution are agriculture and stormwater. In fact, polluted runoff from stormwater is the only growing source of pollution.

A recent decision by the second highest court in the land confirmed the legitimacy of the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, turning back challenges to the law by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Homebuilders Association. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Delaware and West Virginia are required by law to meet the blueprint's pollution reduction goals. Indeed, Baltimore has a significant part in this effort. Under the blueprint, we have certain obligations to clean up our waterways: We must reduce polluted runoff from stormwater on 20 percent of the hard, impervious surfaces in the city and clean-up tons of trash that is a blight on every neighborhood.

I have promised to swim across a fishable and swimmable Harbor by 2020. Call me crazy, but to get there, and to be the city we can be — clean, healthy and prosperous — we need clean water. That means a redoubling of effort, for we too are behind. Yet clean water is the key to revitalizing the city. Cleaning our waters can create jobs, clean up alleyways and neighborhoods, and reduce blight and create new green spaces for people to enjoy — not to mention the obvious social and environmental benefits of clean water. And that's good for businesses, tourism and our quality of life. In turn, we rejuvenate Baltimore.

When the executive council meets, it must recognize the urgency of the environmental problems Baltimore and other communities face. Further, the council must acknowledge the imperative cities, counties and states face in reducing pollution. Ultimately, the council must articulate how it will support Mayor Rawlings-Blake and accelerate implementation of the blueprint.

We now need our elected leadership to show vision and courage and to act — from all levels of government — to help restore the Jones Falls, Baltimore harbor, and the green and blue places where our kids play and we used to fish. We need to do our part as well and be vocal about the need to achieve the goal of clean water — not 10 years from now, but now. Let's get on with it!

Michael Hankin is CEO of Brown Advisory and chair of the Waterfront Partnership Board. His email is mhankin@brownadvisory.com.

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