Conference looks to clean up Baltimore's harbor

Baltimore's harbor may be a mess, but those who attended a daylong conference on its problems Saturday came away encouraged that it doesn't have to stay that way.

The meeting — sponsored by the Waterfront Partnership, a nonprofit group representing Inner Harbor businesses and institutions — was equal parts science class, how-to workshop and pep rally. It was punctuated with appearances by local politicians and Alexandra Cousteau, a clean-water advocate and granddaughter of undersea adventurer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

"The measure of the quality of our water is the measure of the quality of our community," Cousteau told the crowd. She urged the government officials, business executives, activists and neighborhood leaders present to push for legislation and enforcement of environmental laws and "on getting people not to accept the status quo."

The Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River fare "poor" to "very poor" in nearly every measure of ecological or human health, according to a preliminary report card on the health of the harbor presented by Heath Kelsey of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The water is littered with trash and laced with disease-causing bacteria from sewage leaks and polluted street runoff that make it unsafe to swim in, especially after a rainstorm. Some places, especially in the Middle Branch, are often clean enough to take a dip. But the bottom is riddled with toxic contaminants left over from factories and shipyards that once lined the harbor, and the water is murky, lacking in underwater grasses and prone to algae blooms.

Kelsey pointed out that similarly poor conditions exist in the Jones Falls and the Gwynns Falls, the two streams that begin in the suburbs of Baltimore County before flowing through the city into the harbor. Up to 400 pounds of trash are collected in a single day at some points in the streams beyond the city line.

The Waterfront Partnership has launched a Healthy Harbor campaign intent on making the water swimmable and fishable by 2020. It has commissioned a restoration plan, which it plans to unveil in May. The plan is likely to call for greater efforts to find and fix chronic sewage leaks, for construction of man-made wetlands to replace those lost to development centuries ago and for community-wide efforts to "green" urban and suburban neighborhoods to reduce runoff.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stopped by to praise the partnership's effort, saying that such "public-private partnerships" are key to restoring the harbor. And she noted that the trash and pollution in the harbor do not come solely from the city.

"A healthy harbor starts upstream," she said. "It starts in each and every one of our neighborhoods."

But while saying she was sure the harbor could be made swimmable and fishable "in our lifetime," she did not offer any specific commitments from the city.

Rawlings-Blake, who is facing re-election, said in a brief interview that "it's time for us to start talking about" adopting a fee to be levied on all property owners to pay for getting trash and pollution out of the harbor and streams. But she declined to say when one might be proposed for the city. Legislation is expected to be introduced in Annapolis to require all municipalities and counties to collect such a fee to pay for required cleanups, but the bill failed to pass last year.

"This is going to be a steep challenge," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, told the group, in closing the daylong conference. But he exhorted those present to go out into the city and suburbs and get their neighbors and friends involved in protecting "one of the most important symbols of our city … one of our most important resources."

Those in attendance offered ideas for how to help clean the harbor and its watershed. Ten-year-old Nikhil Mehta, a fifth-grader at West Friendship Elementary School in Howard County, said he and other youngsters would welcome a "bottle-return" law, so they could collect cast-off drink containers and earn money by turning them in for the deposit. Others called for a nickel fee on disposable plastic or paper bags statewide, as the District of Columbia now has, and for a ban on further marina development in the harbor.

Betty Bland-Thomas, a neighborhood leader from Sharp-Leadenhall near the sports stadiums, said she was excited by the conference and sure residents throughout the city, even in poor neighborhoods, would join the cause if included in the planning. She said residents everywhere are interested in greener, healthier environs and in ridding their blocks of trash.

"Everything doesn't take money to do," she said. "Let's do this right in our own backyard."

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