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Baltimore harbor, watershed improving, but still get an 'F' for health

No swimming yet: Sewage, trash still plague Baltimore harbor and its tributaries, though some gains made.

Baltimore's harbor and the rivers and streams that feed into it are still badly polluted by sewage leaks, stormwater runoff and trash. But area waters showed some signs of improving ecological health last year, cleanup advocates reported Thursday.

The third annual "Healthy Harbor Report Card" gives the watershed an "F" overall for the second straight year, with excessive bacteria from sewage and storm runoff making the water unsafe to touch, much less swim, in many places.

But water quality improved some in one harbor tributary, the Gwynns Falls, earning it a D-minus grade. And the new water wheel at the mouth of the Jones Falls kept 160 tons of trash out of the Inner Harbor.

"We're moving in the right direction, but we've got to pick up the pace," said Adam Lindquist, manager of the Healthy Harbor initiative for the Waterfront Partnership, a group of harbor-area businesses and tourist attractions.

The partnership produced the report card in collaboration with Blue Water Baltimore, the local watershed advocacy group, to track progress toward their goal of making the harbor and its tributaries swimmable and fishable by 2020.

Water-quality scores for the harbor, the tidal portion of the Patapsco River and the Gwynns and Jones falls ranged from 52 percent to 61 percent. Three of the four have shown modest improvement since the annual evaluations began in 2012, but the Jones Falls worsened last year.

While the Gwynns Falls got noticeably better last year, it wasn't clear why, advocates said. The report card notes that Baltimore County restored 1,420 feet of stream and three acres of wetlands in Scotts Level Branch, but that project covered only a small fraction of the river's watershed. 

Bacteria levels tended to be better in the harbor, the report card found, but still remain excessively high in many places. They spike after heavy rain events with street runoff and sewer overflows, but also register unsafe levels even in dry weather, reflecting the many chronic leaks in the aging sewer infrastructure in Baltimore city and Baltimore County.

Adding to the region's water quality woes, the report card says, are indications that heavy applications of road salt in winter are getting into the rivers and streams, threatening fish and other aquatic critters.

While finding conditions overall still poor, there were some bright spots. The trash-scooping water wheel at the end of the Jones Falls has drawn international attention for both its appearance and its performance, said Lindquist. Efforts are being made now, he said, to raise $500,000 to put a second wheel in Canton at the outfall there for a major storm drain network known as Harris Creek.

David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore, said some parts of the upper Gwynns Falls and upper Jones Falls watersheds also had "surprisingly good" water quality. 

Flores said he's looking to see significant improvements in the next several years. The city and Baltimore County have been working for more than a decade now under state and federal orders to fix sewer overflows and leaks, he noted. They also are raising millions of dollars annually through storm-water fees to make mandated reductions in polluted runoff from city and suburban streets and parking lots.

"If we ever have a chance as a community — not just for the region, but for the Chesapeake Bay — to make measurable improvements in water quality, now is the time," Flores said. 

Stressing that hopeful message, the report card this year features a cover photograph of students from the "green team" at John Eager Howard elementary school in Reservoir Hill, who performed a song and dance about the importance of recycling and picking up trash when the water wheel was dedicated last year.

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