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Most city pools close as temperatures rise

Central Maryland is headed back into the steamer this week as this seemingly endless summer of 90-degree temperatures, high humidity and nasty air pollution refuses to release its grip.

Forecasters say that high temperatures Tuesday and Wednesday will threaten 110-year-old records, even as Baltimore's financially strapped government has closed nearly all of its 41 swimming pools for the summer.

The only good weather-related news to be found Monday was word that Grant Capital Management, a local firm that has provided millions of dollars in lease financing for the city and its housing authority, stepped forward with a $90,000 donation to keep the Druid Hill Park pool open through Labor Day.

J.P. Grant, the company's president and CEO, said in a statement that he grew up not far from the park and recalls the friends he made at the pool and "overcoming my fear of swimming. … I hope with the extended operation of the park pool, kids today can have a similar experience."

But unless similar donations materialize, all but one of the city's outdoor pools are now closed for the summer.

As the mercury climbed Monday, Jennifer Vogel and her five kids put on swimsuits, grabbed towels and headed straight from Pigtown to the pool at South Baltimore's Riverside Park.

They didn't get the bad news until they'd arrived at the park and walked to within sight of Riverside's enticingly cool, blue water. The pool was closed.

"Are you serious?" said Vogel, 27. Her kids, ages 4 to 10, seemed to droop a bit at the news.

"This doesn't make a bit of sense," said Vogel's mother, Sharon Vogel, 51, who had come along for the swim. "They cut all this stuff for children, and wonder why crime is so high."

The National Weather Service said that temperatures Tuesday and Wednesday will climb into the high 90s, with increasing humidity. The record for each day is 100 degrees, set in 1900.

More 90-degree weather is due on Thursday.

At Riverside Park, the only action in the pool were ripples stirred by the breeze and a lone squirrel, slaking its thirst at the water's edge. The staff was reduced to turning away disappointed residents and waiting for orders to clean up and drain the pool.

It was much the same scene at the Cherry Hill Splash Park, at Potee Street and Reedbird Avenue, where a handful of employees took cooling plunges in an otherwise empty pool.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said Grant's offer to fund four more weeks of swimming at Druid Hill Park came "completely unsolicited. … He called to see how he could help."

"We're hopeful other businesses will be inspired by this very generous gift," he said. Asked whether other donations were in the works, O'Doherty said only, "I wouldn't rule it out."

If not, only Druid Hill Park Pool and the city's three indoor pools are scheduled to be open from here on. Kids were swimming Monday at the Callowhill Aquatics Center in Northwest Baltimore and at the Chick Webb Aquatics Center in East Baltimore.

The Cherry Hill Aquatics Center was supposed to stay open, too, but it was closed Monday because of what city employees said were "mechanical problems." There was no estimate on when it might reopen.

Gwendolyn Burrell, spokeswoman for the Department of Recreation and Parks, said the city normally tries to keep at least some pools open through the end of August.

Last year, pool openings and closings across the city were staggered in an effort to provide some swimming opportunities all summer long despite a tight budget.

This summer's Aug. 8 closing was early, Burrell said. But "we didn't have the money to keep the pools open. It's an ongoing issue citywide, for all the agencies."

O'Doherty said the city pools might not have opened at all, had the mayor and City Council not found ways to narrow Baltimore's $121 million budget gap in the 2010-2011 budget.

"We were looking at a situation that was much, much worse," he said. "It's been forgotten that we were looking at closing firehouses, laying off police officers, permanently closing recreation centers and several pools."

Instead, ways were found to avoid police layoffs, avert some fire company closures and keep the pools open for six weeks. The outdoor pool closings took effect Sunday.

A place to splash and swim has rarely been more welcome than it's been this summer, no matter where you live in Central Maryland.

Monday's high of 93 degrees at BWI-Marshall Airport marked the 44th day of 90-plus weather this year. That's far above the Baltimore average of 29.4 days. And it's beginning to threaten the all-time record of 54 days, set in 1988.

If the mercury reaches 100 degrees, it would set an all-time record for the city of eight triple-digit days in one year.

"It looks like more of the same," said meteorologist Kevin Witt at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Sterling, Va. "There's no relief for at least a week that's noticeable."

The only modest break in the 90-degree weather is a cold front due to pass through the region late Thursday with some showers and storms, dropping Friday's readings into the upper 80s for the weekend.

It's not just the high temperatures that are making this season's weather so nasty.

The state Department of the Environment said Monday that the Baltimore area has exceeded Code Orange air pollution limits on 18 days this summer. Code Orange forecasts were also posted for Monday and Tuesday. That means ozone pollution formed from vehicle and smokestack emissions, heat and sunlight combine to make the air unhealthy to breathe for people in "sensitive groups" — the very young, the elderly and those with heart and respiratory illnesses.

Last year, during a comparatively mild summer, there were nine Code Orange days in the Baltimore area. This year's tally now matches the total for 2008, but it is still well below the 40 days counted in 2007, according to the Department of the Environment.

Environment Secretary Shari Wilson has credited the state's curbs on coal-fired power plant emissions, in part, for the gains.

There have also been three Code Red days, when the air was unhealthy for everyone. That is two more than last year, but fewer, so far, than in any of the previous five years.

Baltimore has declared 13 Code Red heat alerts, opening cooling centers for residents who need a place to chill out in the stubborn heat and humidity.

With the Riverside Park pool now closed, Sharon Vogel, her daughter and grandchildren switched to Plan B on Monday and climbed back in their car.

"Plan B is Patapsco Valley State Park, in the creek," she said. "We're going to find somewhere to go."

Maryland weather blog: Frank Roylance on meteorology

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