Baltimore is racing to remove thousands of acres of pavement, expand street sweeping and create new wetlands to meet a looming federal deadline to cut runoff to the Chesapeake Bay.
Federal and state regulators have charged local governments across the region with eliminating one-fifth of concrete and asphalt surfaces over five years. Baltimore's deadline is December 2018.
The city can get there by replacing blacktop with grass, creating wetlands to collect and filter runoff, or indirect solutions like sweeping streets more frequently so less trash and debris end up in the bay.
Nearly half of Baltimore is paved. Halfway to the deadline, officials have a long list of projects and initiatives that remain in the formative stages. Some question whether much progress is likely.
The $162 million plan relies largely on the stormwater fee derided as a "rain tax," but also on scarce city public works funds and borrowed money.
Neighboring counties are also working to meet deadlines, but the city's task is especially complex. Meeting the goal requires addressing some of Baltimore's most vexing problems, such as what to do with vacant properties and how best to revitalize struggling neighborhoods.
Just as there is no quick fix for those issues, there are no plans to tear up massive swaths of concrete. Instead, city and community leaders are counting on gradual progress, block by block.
A light rain over Druid Hill Avenue last week stirred the scent of fresh mulch and young littleleaf linden trees.
The advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore is doubling or tripling the size of tree beds and planting hundreds of new saplings. As part of the effort, community leaders also developed a new Druid Heights Peace Park.
Such projects aren't just about bringing some green to the concrete jungle, or making the West Baltimore neighborhood a nicer place to live — they're also the city's solution to Patapsco River pollution.
"This was a vacant lot," said Anthony Pressley, director of community resources for the Druid Heights Community Development Corp.
He teared up as he celebrated Blue Water Baltimore's investment in his neighborhood.
"The community is getting creative with what to do with this space."
The improvements are part of the "pollution diet" the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established for the Chesapeake Bay's watershed in 2010. The idea is to limit the amount of pollution from cities, farms, sewage treatment plants and the air that the rain washes into the water.
The diet has proved effective, so far: Different assessments in recent years have shown signs the bay's health is improving.
To do their part, populous urban and suburban jurisdictions around the state are being pressed to direct more stormwater to natural filtration systems, instead of man-made gutters and drains.
Then-Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation in 2012 to require local governments to charge residents and businesses a fee to fund that work — the so-called rain tax.
Gov. Larry Hogan pushed to let local governments find another way to pay for the work, and some counties have since rejected the fee. But Baltimore collected $52 million from the fee in 2014 and 2015 to put toward stormwater projects.
Regardless of how they pay for it, counties and the city are expected to treat all runoff from paved surfaces by 2025, the deadline that the Chesapeake Bay states, the federal government, universities and advocacy groups have set to clean up the estuary.
In Baltimore, that means addressing the runoff from more than 21,000 acres of pavement — an area more than 150 times the size of Patterson Park.
During the five-year period through the end of 2018, the city has to start with 4,300 of those acres.
Officials say the goal is aggressive.
The work is "on a scale that has never been done in this city," said Kimberly Grove, chief of compliance for the Baltimore Department of Public Works.
Before 2013, the city spent an average of $14 million per year on construction and maintenance of stormwater management projects.
Spending is expected to reach $33 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1, and climb to $65 million the following year — roughly matching and then doubling the amount the city spends each year on trash pickup and recycling.
On paper, the city already has a plan to "restore" more than 3,200 acres. It includes projects to replace patches of pavement around schools and neighborhoods with grass or other permeable surfaces.
But more than 3,000 acres from the tally come not from pulling up the concrete, but by making water runoff cleaner by expanding street sweeping.
Officials added new monthly sweeping routes in neighborhoods across the city in 2014, and by EPA math, those efforts eventually will account for the equivalent of thousands of acres of pavement removal.
Critics question whether the city's plan will actually help the city will reach its goals.
"It's not going to happen," City Councilman Jim Kraft said. "This has not been a priority."
Kraft called on public works officials this month to detail their spending on stormwater projects. He questions how much street sweeping helps reduce the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients blamed for clouding bay waters and creating dead zones devoid of oxygen.
Blue Water Baltimore has expressed concern about how many projects are still in planning stages.
With so many planned for construction in 2018, executive director Halle Van der Gaag said, it's "the nature of how the world works" that some will get pushed into 2019, or beyond — or might never happen at all.
Much of the city's budget for stormwater improvements is going to maintenance, repair and replacement of aging infrastructure. As long as stormwater projects have to compete with basic infrastructure needs, Van der Gaag said, progress on the cleanup will be constrained.
"We know that pipes need to be replaced better than anyone," she said. "But moving water around through rehabilitated pipes does not provide any actual treatment or filtration of the polluted runoff. It just moves it faster to the stream."
Public works officials acknowledge the challenges.
Grove said the city must keep its stormwater fees reasonable, which limits the amount of money available for the cleanup, and officials must compete with counties across the state for contractors and engineers to get projects done.
While the city has a long list of projects, officials have a second list of contingency plans because they expect some options will fall through.
They aren't alone. Baltimore County, where officials voted to phase out the stormwater fee, said last year it was about two-thirds of the way to a goal of mitigating 6,100 acres of pavement by the end of 2018.
Vincent Gardina, the county's environmental protection director, said getting the rest of the job done will be tough, but it's possible.
"We're being as aggressive as we can," he said. "I think the time frame given to us by the EPA is difficult."
Anne Arundel County has until early 2019 to meet stormwater reduction goals. Other counties, including Carroll, Harford and Howard, have until the end of that year.
If jurisdictions don't meet their goals, the Maryland Department of the Environment could issue fines or require corrective actions.
City officials say they are trying to be creative and thorough to come as close to the goal as possible.
More than 200 residents attended a meeting last week to launch a new city "Green Network Plan," pitched as a way to coordinate efforts to turn vacant homes and lots across the city into green spaces and job opportunities.
Much like the Druid Heights beautification, the initiative has several objectives — aesthetic, economic and environmental — and reducing stormwater runoff is among them.
Takia Ross, a Cherry Hill woman eager to see investment in her neighborhood and nearby Westport, said she will wait and see.
Will the Green Network Plan give Ross and her neighbors a clean waterfront and perhaps help them afford homes of their own?
"We've all seen how some of these plans kind of crop up," Ross said. What's more important, she said, is "what happens to it afterward."