Normally, rain flushes garbage down Baltimore's storm drains to float in stomach-churning blobs around the Inner Harbor's tourist attractions.
But yesterday looked different. After one of the heaviest downpours of the year, not a single plastic foam cup or dead rat bobbed around the National Aquarium. Instead, a mound of litter had been caught by a garbage-grabbing gizmo installed in February where the biggest outfall dumps into the harbor.
The invention worked pretty well during its first major test - with some human intervention by its creator, who wielded a rake to break apart knots of sticks. It's called the Water Wheel Powered Trash Interceptor, and it snags trash with a floating boom across the base of the Jones Falls. The boom funnels bottles and other debris up a conveyor belt and into a mammoth trash can.
The conveyor belt is driven by the force of the current. Solar panels and a windmill provide auxiliary power. Workers in a boat empty the can about twice a week.
The $375,000 experiment - paid for by the nonprofit Abell Foundation - is designed to help solve one of Baltimore's most embarrassing but persistent challenges: how to prevent every rain from grossing out visitors to the city's economic hub.
The 2 inches of rain that fell Sunday night and yesterday were a major challenge for the water wheel. And, despite a few problems, it passed with a grade of B-plus, according to managers of the project.
"We absolutely believe it's working and are interested in seeing at least one additional water wheel constructed for the Inner Harbor area," said Laurie Schwartz, former deputy mayor who now manages a coalition of waterfront businesses called the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore Inc. "We found it's really effective at catching debris before it reaches the Inner Harbor basin and keeps the unsightly trash away from the local tourist and visitor areas."
City officials were more cautious about whether Baltimore should buy the machine when its test period ends in October, let alone buy more of them.
Celeste Amato, director of Mayor Sheila Dixon's cleanup campaign called the "cleaner, greener" initiative said yesterday that the water wheel is still in its testing phase and that some bugs need to be worked out. "We are still evaluating what tweaks we need to make to make it work at that location," Amato said.
The city is also testing out a different design of litter-catching devices at four other stormwater outfalls, away from the Inner Harbor. These trash interceptors - including one in Canton - use large nets to catch floating debris. They require a crane to lift out the bags once they're filled, and they've had some problems with overfilling and vandalism.
A coalition of environmental groups yesterday released a new public opinion survey that said 88 percent of Baltimore residents are "very bothered" by floating trash in the Inner Harbor.
The harbor downstream from the water wheel was remarkably clear of trash yesterday. The water danced with rain drops, unsullied by floating cups.
The attractive scene belied some troubles with the device. The water wheel's inventor, John Kellett, and his business partner at Clearwater Mills LLC of Pasadena, had to be out in the rain at dawn with rakes in their hands.
They had to break up what they called a "beaver dam" of sticks that was slowing the conveyor belt. This suggests the concept works, Kellett said. But the machine might have to be enlarged to accommodate the tree limbs, logs and 300-pound stumps that often tumble down the Jones Falls during storms, he said.
"The first thing we saw when we got here this morning was a big bloated dead rat going up the conveyor belt - not the way you want to start your day," Kellett said, laughing as he prodded the trash to keep it churning up the ramp. "But at least we caught the bulk of the trash that normally goes into the Inner Harbor."
It was a tough breakfast for Kellett. But at least that's one less floating rat for guests at the adjacent Baltimore Waterfront Marriott to stare at as they dine in the ritzy restaurant.
Also bobbing in front of Kellett's trap yesterday was a multicolored stew. Seven basketballs, soccer balls and footballs floated among the Orange Crush bottles, plastic foam food containers, vodka bottles, potato chip bags and other junk. Sparrows and grackles jumped from can to log in the drizzle, pecking at debris like diners at a smorgasbord.
Meanwhile, a pair of automated claws pawed at the garbage. The grabbers and the water wheel that powers them are on a raft anchored in the middle of the Jones Falls, with a gray shed on top.
The claws pull the junk onto a conveyor belt, which carries the trash up a ramp and into a trash bin. An electronic eye sounds an alarm when the can is full.
By 3 p.m., Kellett and his business partner, Daniel Chase, had used a motorboat to empty the can three times, calling the city's Public Works Department to truck it to the landfill. That means they rounded up about seven tons of trash.
Kellett reached down into the floating mat and pulled up a basketball, which he tossed onto the raft. Nearby, seven captured baseballs were lined up on a beam of the cabin.
"We donate the balls to local schools," said Kellett, his foul weather gear dripping.
At one point, a branch got jammed in the machine, halting the conveyor belt's progress until the machine's scooping device knocked the stick free.
Kellett said the machine turned out to require more human labor than he had anticipated, because of the need to unclog the tangled masses of sticks. "If we had one that was a little more powerful, with a more powerful rake, it could bust up the piles," he said.
For 17 years until last June, Kellett worked for the Living Classrooms Foundation, directing exhibits aboard historic ships around the Inner Harbor. He said he was inspired to invent the trash catcher because he kept hearing visitors to the U.S. Coast Guard ship Taney and other ships say they were grossed out by the floating bottles. "Every day, I'd hear the tourists say, 'the harbor is disgusting,' Kellett said. "Its the first impression a lot of people have of the city. I thought there must be a better way of dealing with the floating trash."