Waterfront Partnership report shows impact of treatment plant woes on water quality

Baltimore’s Waterfront Partnership released its annual Harbor Heartbeat report card Thursday, depicting the stark increase in bacteria issues in the waters close to the city’s Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant.

For several years, water samples collected by the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore found that the river near the troubled treatment plant’s outfall was safe to swim in 100% of the time — at least during dry weather. But during 2021 monitoring, testing showed the area was only safe 40% of the time it was sampled.


At all of Blue Water Baltimore’s other sampling sites in the Inner Harbor and along its tributaries, that percentage of times swimmable either improved or stayed the same from 2020 to 2021, according to the partnership’s report.

“Because bacteria dissipate quickly in the environment, the impact was very local and really only detectable at one monitoring site,” said Adam Lindquist, the partnership’s vice president of programs and environmental initiatives.


But the impacts on the ecosystem as a whole may not have been so localized, Lindquist said.

The group reported that 2021 marked another year of increased levels of phosphorous and chlorophyll in the harbor and tidal Patapsco River — the highest since the group’s monitoring effort began.

The Patapsco wastewater plant was found to be releasing inadequately treated sewage with excesses of nutrients such as phosphorous, which stimulates harmful algae growth, capable of diminishing oxygen in waterways and killing wildlife.

The Waterfront Partnership has issued the report since 2011 as part of its Healthy Harbor Initiative, a campaign to get the once industrial port into swimmable and fishable condition. The group’s original goal was to reach that point by 2020, but that year the group instead released a 2030 Vision, complete with a rendering of a possible swimming area in the Inner Harbor.

Meanwhile, the group is focusing on developing a route for paddlers to navigate the harbor, to be named the Baltimore Blueway, complete with public water access points. The idea was first mentioned last year, but the partnership announced Thursday it had commissioned environmental firm Biohabitats to complete a master plan, expected in the spring of 2023, Lindquist said.

The firm already has completed preliminary surveys about the potential paddling route, Lindquist said. There will be additional opportunities for public comment on the plan this winter, he said.

In the meantime, the partnership maintains a delicate balance between informing the public about water quality issues and encouraging them to embrace the harbor as a potential hub for recreation. Many of the sampling sites in and around the harbor were safe for swimming 80% to 100% of the time during dry weather in 2021, with a low score of 65%.

The group previously discussed placing signs around the harbor explaining when it is safe to swim, based on sampling data and weather. The state recommends against swimming in natural bodies of water at least 48 hours after rainfall of at least half an inch, because rain can carry pollutants off the land into the water, where they take time to dissipate.


“It’s really important to do that in a smart way,” Lindquist said. “You don’t just want to post signs that are scary and keep people off the waterways because, honestly, the best way to create advocates for our waterways is to have people recreate in them.”

Last summer, alarming bacteria samples collected near the Patapsco plant by Blue Water Baltimore set off state inspections at that facility and its sister plant, also operated by Baltimore City, along the Back River.

State inspectors found a dizzying array of maintenance problems at both plants, which were causing pollution discharges. Both Blue Water Baltimore and the state attorney general’s office have sued the city over the problems at the plants.

In March, state inspectors found the Back River plant on the brink of “catastrophic failure.” State staffers from the Maryland Environmental Service arrived to help — against the will of the city, which filed a protest in court.

Ultimately, the city and the state reached an agreement, which seems poised to lapse because Back River’s discharge has met regulations, but officials are negotiating a possible extension.

No such agreement has been reached for the Patapsco plant, which continues to battle maintenance and staffing woes, according to the state’s most recent inspection report. As of the Aug. 24 report, the plant had about 50 vacancies.


The report detailed continued issues with equipment maintenance. The plant has surpassed annual and seasonal limits on nitrogen and phosphorous, and struggled to stay under monthly limits for pollutants like ammonia.