Federal agencies announced an expansion of their "urban waters" revitalization effort, pledging technical and other largely non-monetary help to projects like this proposed $27 million white-water park in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Federal agencies announced an expansion of their "urban waters" revitalization effort, pledging technical and other largely non-monetary help to projects like this proposed $27 million white-water park in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Photo courtesy RiverRestoration)

Federal officials announced Friday a major expansion of the "urban waters" initiative they kicked off in Baltimore nearly two years ago, adding 11 new blighted water ways around the country to the seven they've already pledged to help clean up and redevelop, including the Patapsco River.

Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and 12 other federal agencies gathered for the announcement this time in Grand Rapids, Mich. A group of kayakers there has teamed up with a private engineering firm to push a $27 million white-water park on the Grand River flowing through the city's downtown.


Other water ways targeted for help in the expanded effort include the Delaware River in and around Philadelphia and in Wilmington, Del., the Passaic River in Newark, NJ, and the Mystic River in the Boston area.

"Since we launched the Urban Waters federal partnership two years ago, we've seen firsthand what the transformation of degraded urban waterways into clean, healthy and treasured centerpieces can do for local communities – not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but also from a public health and economic standpoint," Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said in a statement issued by the agency.

"Restored urban waters can reinvigorate communities," added Perciasepe, a former Maryland environment secretary, "and I am confident the new project locations will see the same success the partnership's efforts have already supported across the country."

While trails have been built and parks upgraded in some cities that were part of the initial "pilot" program, on-the-ground results have been limited so far around the Patapsco.

The federal and local "partners" have held monthly meetings since the kickoff, and participants say there are things in the works.  One involves writing a "green pattern book," a guide for improving storm-water pollution controls and developing parks, gardens and urban agriculture.  The U.S. Forest Service also has sponsored a "carbon challenge" – a contest for architects to draw up designs for buildings made of wood rather than concrete and steel.

Some federal agencies also are helping Blue Water Baltimore, the local watershed organization, plan a series of projects to beautify and enhance the Oliver neighborhood in East Baltimore.  By extension, the effort is intended to help the residents connect to the harbor, into which their streets, yards and alleys drain.

But about the only tangible thing done so far involved paying 14 urban youths last summer to learn arboriculture while working to improve the Gwynns Falls Trail.  Those six weeks of hands-on training were funded in part with $75,000 from the U.S. Forest Service.  However, it's not clear that the funds are there to continue that this summer, according to Michael Galvin, who was hired with another $175,000 in forest service funds to serve as Urban Waters Ambassador and help coordinate work in the Patapsco watershed.

While federal agencies are contributing in-kind labor, dedicated funding is one of the things in short supply in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. Other than $1.2 million provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which includes the forest service), federal agencies say their main contribution comes from coordinating efforts through existing programs.

"We think the urban waters partnership is a model for the way the federal family ought to band together and share resources to improve people's lives," explained Michael T. Rains, director of the forest service's northern research station outside Philadelphia.

J. Morgan Grove, who spearheads the forest service's work in the Baltimore area, said the collaboration here has provided a "template" for federal agencies working in other cities on how to coordinate with local governments and citizen groups.  Through the effort, for instance, another nonprofit, Civic Works, landed some federal funds to provide green job training.

"I'm not convinced that big huge dollars is the solution," Grove said, for improving the Patapsco.

Galvin, who actually works for a private tree-care management firm, said more on-the-ground projects should come soon, including tree plantings to increase Baltimore's forest cover.  Trees, in addition to helping cool and beautify urban neighborhoods, can soak up some of the rainfall that's regularly flushing pollution off city streets into the harbor.