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Baltimore’s Waterfront Partnership planning new paddling trail; Harbor Heartbeat report shows slow, steady progress

Baltimore’s Waterfront Partnership is seeking bids from companies to design a new paddling trail for the harbor, the nonprofit announced Thursday as it announced continued steady improvement in the health of the estuary.

The water trail, to be called the Baltimore Blueway, will likely extend from the Canton Waterfront Park around the Inner Harbor and back out to Masonville Cove, and it could mean more boat and paddleboard launch points along the city’s waterfront, said Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative.

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It all depends on what firms propose, with input from local rowing, kayaking and standup paddleboard clubs, among others.

“We’d love to have a kayak-launching point in the Inner Harbor that allows people not just to launch from the Inner Harbor, but to get out of a kayak at the Inner Harbor, and perhaps put their kayak up on a rack and go eat lunch,” Lindquist said. “That would be amazing.”

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The news came as the partnership released its annual Harbor Heartbeat report, which chronicles bacteria and pollution levels in city waterways each year. Since the study began in 2011, bacteria levels have improved slowly but surely. And, as a result, the partnership has turned its focus in recent years to encouraging more opportunities for recreation in the harbor.

Last year, the partnership unveiled a goal to establish a swimming spot in the Baltimore harbor by 2030. Plans to hold a one-time swimming event in the harbor last year were derailed by COVID-19, Lindquist said, but the partnership still hopes to hold one in the future, mainly to show wary Baltimore residents that the harbor is largely safe for swimming.

“We hear a lot about the problems, and there are problems,” Lindquist said. “The harbor has good days and bad days. But when you zoom out and look at the trend over the last 10 years, we’ve seen some phenomenal improvements in the amount of sewage and bacteria in our waterways.”

A majority of the locations in the harbor are safe for swimming a majority of the time, so long as there hasn’t been recent rainfall, this year’s report found. Two monitoring stations along the Inner Harbor were safe for swimming 73% and 80% of the time in dry weather in 2020. One closer to Federal Hill had the lowest score — 59%. A station in Fells Point was safe 67% of the time, and one close to Canton was safe every time it was sampled. When the study began, no monitoring station in the harbor was safe for swimming more than 70% of the time.

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“I get asked a lot ‘when am I going to swim in the water?’ It’s going to be soon. I would be confident doing it,” said Michael Hankin, the partnership’s founder and the president and CEO of Brown Advisory. “We moved from a period when we all thought you wouldn’t even want to fall in the water on any day.”

Now, officials are discussing adding a flagging system to keep potential paddlers, and future swimmers, informed about daily water quality.

It helps that in late 2020, the city started operating its Headworks Project, a massive undertaking to reduce sewage overflows into the Jones Falls, which feeds the Inner Harbor. For years, wet weather would overwhelm the city’s sewer system, creating a miles-long underground backup that overflowed into the stream. With the Headworks Project, officials installed large storage tanks at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which can store the water until it can be processed. It’s one of the main efforts mandated by the city’s sewer-related consent decree.

As a result of those projects, officials hope to see bigger improvements in bacteria levels starting as soon as next year, but problems remain, Lindquist said.

“The point is, the burden is on the Department of Public Works to continue to repair our sewer system. The Headworks Project was a huge win, but it is not the only thing that needs to be corrected in our sewer system,” he said. “We still have aging pipes, we still have leaking pipes, and the consent decree lays out very clearly what is required of the city.”

Therefore, it’s far more likely that residents will be paddling on the harbor rather than swimming in it at this point, Lindquist said. That’s what inspired the partnership to make paddling easier, he said, in addition to the news this summer that a paddleboarding company, B’More SUP, had set up a location in the harbor.

Along with this year's Harbor Heartbeat water quality report, The Waterfront Partnership is also releasing a call for bids to create an Inner Harbor paddling trail with signage and kayak launches.
Along with this year's Harbor Heartbeat water quality report, The Waterfront Partnership is also releasing a call for bids to create an Inner Harbor paddling trail with signage and kayak launches. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

“It’s kind of a Wild West when people are paddling out in the Baltimore Harbor right now,” he said. “You can’t always be sure that anyone knows what the rules of the road are.”

Part of the job of whichever contractor designs the Blueway will be to establish those rules, possibly by posting signs reminding people to remain along the harbor’s perimeter and away from shipping channels, Lindquist said. Two water trails already bring paddlers into the harbor from the bay — the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Trail trial and The Star-Spangled Banner Trail. The Blueway could connect residents to those trails via maps, signage and a website.

Ray Scurr, president of the Canton Kayak Club, said his group requires a training session for new paddlers, who pay a flat fee to rent kayaks from one of 10 stations in the Baltimore area between May and October. The three-hour course teaches them how best to navigate the harbor, and reminds them to remain aware of passing boats and weather forecasts.

But the bigger challenge his group tries to address is access, said Scurr, one of the members of the advisory committee that will consider proposals for the water trail’s design. Many city residents don’t have room to store a kayak of their own, and aren’t sure where they could go to try one out. Finding more private landowners willing to host boat docks to be part of the Blueway could help, he said, as could offering more places for paddlers to tie up their boats and dismount to explore or have a meal.

“Most people want to paddle around the corner to Nick’s Fish House,” he said, standing on the group’s kayak dock near South Bond Street in Fells Point. “It’s a destination. They stop, they eat, they paddle back. So around here if you’re talking about creating a water trail … it’s about identifying those destinations, and then identifying how to get there and what you need to know to get there.”

Meanwhile, several projects are already underway to reinvigorate habitats in the longtime industrial port, including an effort to build floating wetlands next to the National Aquarium. So far, a prototype — a small chunk of wetland grasses — has been installed between Piers 3 and 4 in the harbor, a frequent pit stop for passing sea gulls and blue crabs.

“The floating wetlands project being worked on by the National Aquarium is going to be really cool to see from the land,” he said. “I think it’d be even cooler to paddle through it and see it from the water.”

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