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A swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020: Why not?

Last month, there was a deluge of stories in The Baltimore Sun about cleaning up two of our region's most consistently polluted attractions: the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Of course, the health of these two water bodies is inexorably linked — and not just to each other, but also to the health of our communities. When it rains, pollution and litter on our lawns and in our streets gets flushed into storm drains that empty into our streams, our harbor, and ultimately the bay.

The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has just released the Healthy Harbor Plan to make our harbor safe for swimming and fishing by 2020. However, this is more than a plan to make the harbor safe for water recreation. This plan aims to use the health of the harbor as a surrogate for the health of the city. We can't clean up the harbor or bay without also cleaning and greening our neighborhoods. That would be an effort akin to mopping up the floor while the sink is still overflowing.

Already, we have tremendous momentum, including demonstration projects like the floating wetlands, which will soon be expanded to the largest floating wetland installation in the state; we have precedents like Boston's Charles River, where they now hold annual swimming competitions; and we have a great team of city officials, scientists, and business leaders.

So, how do we start? The first big step is to acknowledge that the status quo is unacceptable. Raw sewage leaks into the harbor and streams that flow into it; trash clogs our streets and pours into the harbor on rainy days; stormwater runoff, less visible to most of us, collects nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and other pollutants from our streets and deposits them in the harbor. It is time to stand up and recognize that this is unacceptable. It is time to take on this challenge.

Is this a huge goal? Yes. But the city can do it — and I don't mean the city government. It would be unrealistic to rely on government alone to do this. This is our city, and it includes all of us: government, businesses, foundations and citizens. We now have our first report card and a great plan, with very concrete steps for achieving our goals (available at http://www.healthyharborbaltimore.org).

To control bacteria, the Waterfront Partnership will monitor streams and storm drains throughout the city, reporting pollution, tracking cleanups and pipe replacements, and scaling up our efforts along with city officials'.

The challenge of trash is about asking those of us who live and work in Baltimore to do more. We are the source of much of the litter in the streets, and we need to be responsible for cleaning it up.

To address pollution throughout the city, the Waterfront Partnership will work with neighborhoods to develop environmental health plans that fit the unique needs of each. We are going to ask each school, as well as each federal, state and city property, to play a role. Just imagine the improvement we would see if every one of our approximately 250 neighborhoods and all the schools, post offices and similar facilities contributed to the cleanup effort.

This isn't going to be easy, especially in the early years, but a lot of the plan depends on things we can control. We need to decide that this is important to do, to talk about, and not put it off just because it seems too daunting or too big or too expensive — especially when the city already has a lot to focus on and not a lot of resources. It is up to us, as citizens of Baltimore, to decide that it is a priority.

Our role at the Waterfront Partnership is to help lead this effort, to bring people together, to help them be more effective, and to measure our progress and hold each other accountable. To achieve our goal, we all must acknowledge our individual responsibility and play an active role.

The time is now. It's our city — let's act like it!

Michael D. Hankin, president & CEO of Brown Advisory, is chairman of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore Inc. His email is mhankin@brownadvisory.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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