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Baltimore's Water Wheel goes viral [Commentary]

A seemingly endless flow of trash has plagued the Inner Harbor for years, and the problem only gets worse in the aftermath of downpours like the one that washed through the area in early May. Baltimore's hardworking fleet of trash-skimming boats scoops 200 tons of garbage from the harbor every year, but it can barely keep up with the problem.

But as 884,409 people (and counting) on the website Reddit can attest, help has arrived. That's how many people viewed a video featuring the city's latest solution.

Early last month, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore; Constellation, the renewable-energy arm of Exelon Corp.; and the Maryland Port Administration together launched the Inner Harbor Water Wheel, an amazing new trash removal system that is capable of picking up 50,000 pounds of trash every day. The automated system, designed by John Kellett and Clearwater Mills, brilliantly combines old and new technology. It uses solar power and water current to turn a giant spinning wheel — much like a traditional mill wheel — that scoops garbage flowing down the Jones Falls stream and deposits it into a dumpster for disposal. The garbage it collects is towed to a nearby waste-to-energy plant where it can be put to productive use.

We have high hopes that the Water Wheel will put a meaningful dent in the flow of trash into the Inner Harbor. In its first few weeks of operation, it picked up more than 25 tons of trash, and we believe that's just the start.

We were delighted to see that a video capturing the Water Wheel in action during a recent storm quickly went viral. After just a few days more than a half-million people had watched the video, and it had reached nearly 885,000 views as of late May, just a few weeks after the Water Wheel was launched. For a time the video was the top-trending link on Reddit, a popular online bulletin board, and it has received thousands of positive comments from viewers all around the Internet.

So why would a video of a giant garbage disposal garner so much online attention and affection? We believe that it is because young people care about the environment, not just in the abstract but in the very real sense of protecting and improving their homes. Many young professionals seek an urban lifestyle, and they want to live in cities that are actively working to restore and protect their environments. They also greatly appreciate and admire innovation and unconventional thinking. They also have a much greater sense of urgency about environmental issues than is perhaps appreciated.

On all of these fronts, the Water Wheel hits the mark, and we believe that solutions like this are exactly the kind of thing that can help Baltimore attract young professionals and young families looking for a place to call home.

The Waterfront Partnership has an ambitious goal: a swimmable and fishable Inner Harbor by 2020. The Water Wheel is the sort of project that Baltimore needs to support — and not just the government, but the city's businesses, foundations and citizens as well. This $800,000 project is a great example of how effective public-private partnerships can be: The Maryland Port Administration contributed $500,000, Constellation contributed $300,000, and the Waterfront Partnership will play a lead role in funding the Water Wheel's annual operating budget.

We call on the city and our partners to keep the momentum going. If we can fund just two more Water Wheels — one for deployment in Harris Creek and the other in the mouth of Gwynns Falls — we can make a huge difference in stemming the flow of trash and get that much closer to our goal of a clean and healthy Harbor.

Trash is not our only obstacle. We still need to change our "upstream" behavior and find ways to stop the trash from washing into waterways in the first place, and we still need to find ways to address the various sewage and stormwater runoff problems that face the Harbor. But if all of us put our support behind innovative thinking and innovative solutions like the Water Wheel, together we can restore the Harbor and make it the city's crown jewel once again.

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

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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