Coming into 2020, Baltimore environmental advocates already had acknowledged that the goal to make the city’s harbor swimmable and fishable by this year was out of reach.
But buoyed by water quality improvements over the past decade, Baltimore’s Waterfront Partnership is now setting its sights on 2030.
“2020 was the goal for swimming in the harbor, and we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a little bit of work left to do,” said Adam Lindquist, director of the partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative.
Along with its annual Harbor Heartbeat Report released Wednesday — which chronicles bacteria levels and other water quality indicators in the harbor and its tributaries — the partnership also released its most specific vision yet for a swimming area in the Inner Harbor. Part of the partnership’s new “2030 Vision” is a modular swim enclosure that could be moved to different sites around the Baltimore waterfront.
The enclosure would need a false bottom, Lindquist said, or to be placed in a section of the harbor deep enough that swimmers couldn’t touch the bottom, since doing so could disturb old pollutants buried in the harbor’s depths.
“We knew from the beginning that this was a big, hairy, audacious goal to clean up the harbor and make it safe again for recreation,” Lindquist said. “And I think one of the biggest takeaways from this report is that we have seen measurable improvements in water quality over the last 10 years.”
But the assessment’s results for last year, at least for the Inner Harbor, were somewhat mediocre. Bacteria levels can fluctuate rapidly based on any number of factors, including rainfall, but the harbor’s 2019 scores lagged behind those of 2018.
To get the swimming project off the ground, the partnership plans to conduct a feasibility study, and to hold a swimming event in the harbor on a day when bacteria levels are low enough to be safe in hopes of changing public perceptions of swimming in the once heavily polluted port.
“There’s certainly a stigma about recreation in the Baltimore harbor, and, there certainly still are challenges,” Lindquist said, “but we think that we’re comparable to other urban areas that have recreation in their waterways.”
The partnership, a nonprofit organization that focuses on beautifying and otherwise improving the Baltimore waterfront, also hopes to institute a system by which colored flags would be flown in the harbor to communicate whether the water is safe for paddleboarding, kayaking, sailing and other activities.
Meanwhile, this year’s Harbor Heartbeat Report showed that in 2019, fecal bacteria samples collected in some parts of the Inner Harbor met the state’s standard for swimming between 50% and 75% of the time, a decline from 2018. That year, all samples collected in the Inner Harbor contained acceptable bacteria levels between 80% and 100% of the time.
But looking back to 2009, all of the sampling sites in the harbor and its tributaries either have reduced bacteria scores or remained the same, according to this year’s report. None have worsened.
The 2019 bacteria samples, collected by Blue Water Baltimore from each station twice a month between April and November, were gathered only during dry weather — at least 48 hours after rainfall totaling more than half an inch. That’s because rainfall carries additional pollutants into the water, and after storms, bacteria is likely to be at its most dangerous levels.
“We’re interested in when the harbor is safe for recreation, and folks aren’t going to be jumping in the harbor when it’s raining anyway,” Lindquist said. “Looking at just the dry weather scores allows us to better compare year over year, as you’re removing the noise that’s added by rainfall.”
In 2018, Baltimore’s rainiest year on record, the harbor’s improved bacteria scores surprised experts, who expected to see worse-than-normal readings. Some hypothesized that heavy rainfall diluted the flow of sewage into local waterways.
In 2019, far less rainfall was recorded in the region, but bacteria results were more of a mixed bag, with improvements at some sampling stations in the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls watersheds, but declines elsewhere.
Experts say improvements to the city’s sewer system have contributed to declining fecal bacteria levels, and that the scheduled completion of the city’s Headworks Project by the end of the year, will continue the decadelong trend. That federally mandated project involves constructing underground tanks to capture sewage that otherwise overflows into the Jones Falls during heavy rains that overwhelm the city’s antiquated sewer system.
The Headworks Project is “on schedule and on budget,” said Matthew Garbark, acting director of the city’s Department of Public Works, during a news conference about the Harbor Heartbeat report Wednesday. That means the tanks will likely be up and running in early 2021, he said.
While bacteria levels have mostly improved over the past decade, other water quality indicators, like acidity and dissolved oxygen levels, haven’t changed significantly in the harbor and its tributaries since 2013. The partnership attributes that to the city spending less on stormwater management as it works to improve the sewer system.
Excess nutrients, chemicals and salts are flowing into the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, negatively impacting wildlife and increasing the chances of harmful algae blooms, according to the report. Since 2013, the harbor has only consistently scored well for dissolved oxygen. Its scores for water clarity and nutrient levels have remained lackluster.
“Both streams and the Harbor have received increasing amounts of excess nutrients over time, causing a variety of algae to bloom and discolor the Harbor too frequently,” the report read. “And there is still too much sediment flowing into the Harbor from stormwater and constant stream erosion.”
As part of Wednesday’s report, the partnership also released its action plan for the next decade. It calls for an increased focus on pet waste cleanup, adding that pets and wildlife “may play a much larger role than originally thought” in bacteria issues.
The partnership’s plan also calls for a “pay-as-you-throw” program that would charge households based on how much waste they generate, and an end to single-stream recycling in the city, which they argue increases contamination in the recycling stream.
Meanwhile, a handful of projects are already underway to beautify portions of the harbor and encourage recreation, including The National Aquarium’s Waterfront Campus plan, which includes the installation of a network of floating wetlands between Piers 3 and 4.
There are also plans to revitalize the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch with wetland and tidal creek habitats, plus spaces for waterfront recreation. That project hit a snag this summer when the architectural firm selected by the city, West 8, bowed out.
“We spent the last 10 years working on cleaning up the Baltimore Harbor, and that work is certainly going to continue,” Lindquist said. “We’re pivoting towards embracing recreation in the Baltimore Harbor.”