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Plan aims to make harbor swimmable by 2020

Seeking to end a long history of abuse and neglect of Baltimore's waters, an ambitious new plan calls for a concerted public and private campaign to curb sewage leaks and littering and make the harbor swimmable by decade's end.

The "Healthy Harbor" plan to be unveiled Wednesday by the Waterfront Partnership — a coalition of businesses, nonprofit groups and city agencies — urges the city and Baltimore County to step up their efforts to clean and "green" neighborhoods, to reduce unsightly trash and to fix failing infrastructure that makes local waters unfit for recreation.

It also advocates bottle-deposit and bag-fee legislation to combat litter and a "storm water" fee to help pay for the cleanup, estimated to cost the city and county a combined $221 million in capital expenditures alone over the next nine years.

The plan, more than a year in the making, comes as state and federal governments mount a full-court press to reduce the nutrient pollution from cities, suburbs and farms that makes the Chesapeake Bay less hospitable to fish and shellfish. The campaign would go beyond the bay cleanup effort to target raw sewage and trash, which make local waters uninviting and unsafe for people as well.

"We believe we can do it, and for the first time think it's practicable," said Michael Hankin, president of the partnership and CEO of Brown Advisory, a Fells Point investment firm.

Although the harbor has suffered for centuries from the effects of industry, shipping and poor sanitation, Hankin said there's been growing interest in recent years from government, civic groups and the business community to restore the degraded waters of the Patapsco River's Northwest and Middle branches. He said now is the time to "plant a flag in the ground" and rally the community to clean the degraded waters.

The harbor — made up of the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch in south Baltimore — is in very poor health overall, according to a new ecological assessment by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. In addition to trash, sewage and nutrients, its bottom sediments are nearly devoid of life and riddled with toxic chemicals, which in turn contaminate fish.

The Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, the two streams that flow into the harbor through Baltimore County and the city, are only moderately degraded overall, according to the UM report card. But they also earn poor to very poor grades for trash, toxic chemicals and bacteria from sewage and pet waste. Studies have shown that up to a quarter of the bacteria in some Maryland streams comes from pet waste, the plan notes.

The plan does not really address the contaminants in harbor sediments that make some locally caught fish unsafe to eat. But it does map out a year-by-year, three-pronged attack on the problems making the harbor unswimmable: sewage leaks, litter and polluted runoff. The campaign would reach far inland from the harbor's edge, promoting stream restoration and greening projects throughout the city and much of the county.

"We can't clean the harbor unless the city is clean," said Laurie Schwartz, the waterfront partnership's executive director.

The fee proposals are likely to generate debate. City officials have shied away from proposing fees for environmental purposes in the past. But they pledged in a recent report to the state to propose a storm water fee to the City Council early next year.

Hankin said local business leaders are willing to support such a fee, provided that it would be levied across the board and would provide credit for taking steps to reduce runoff from their property.

"It's a multifaceted approach we need to take," Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said Tuesday during an Inner Harbor boat tour with environmental activists. "There is no single bullet to solve this problem of pollution into the harbor."

Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, a watershed watchdog group, said making the harbor swimmable by 2020 is an ambitious goal but one that the public can and should get behind, including the area's business and nonprofit community.

"I think we can't be naive [and think] that this is not going to be expensive," she said. "This is a difficult time to find those resources, but it doesn't have to be solely on government. … We're all pulling together."

Select 'Healthy Harbor' proposals

•Boost city and county funding for tracking down sewage leaks, which sampling indicates foul streams and the harbor more often than storm-driven sewer overflows now getting repaired.

•Create a "HarborStat" to track cleanup progress, and consider a flag system similar to one used on Boston's Charles River to notify the public when bacteria levels are too high for swimming.

•Pass bottle-deposit and bag-fee laws to curb littering. Refundable bottle deposits elsewhere have encouraged recycling, the plan says, and small fees on disposable bags have spurred shoppers to bring reusable sacks.

•Develop "greening" plans for all 209 city neighborhoods and communities throughout the county, encouraging residents to plant trees and "rain gardens" for soaking up storm runoff.

•Use the city's many vacant lots to help reduce runoff. The plan estimates that up to 30 percent of the 10,000 city-owned empty lots would be suitable for storm water control projects.

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