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‘Swimmable’ goal still eludes Baltimore harbor — but not all the time

It was safe to jump into waters off of Fort McHenry almost 90 percent of the time in 2016, but the Baltimore harbor is still far from meeting a goal of becoming "swimmable and fishable" by 2020, according to a report being released Monday.

The Healthy Harbor Initiative report again gives the Patapsco River, Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls failing grades. The waterways contain high levels of nitrogen and algae and have poor water clarity, signs of a poor ecosystem for fish, grasses and crabs. And fecal bacteria from an aged, leaky sewer system is still a frequent contaminant.

Yet last year, bacteria levels were among their lowest in decades — making it safe to swim, more often than not, from Canton to Locust Point to Brooklyn to beneath the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

"It could be that the city's work to repair its infrastructure is reducing the amount of sewage in our harbor," said Adam Lindquist, director of the initiative.

Lower rainfall totals in 2016 were also likely a factor, he said. Untreated sewage often flows into the harbor when rainwater overwhelms the century-old waste system.

Report card authors acknowledged the 2020 goal will nonetheless be difficult — if not impossible — to meet without completion of court-mandated work to repair the sewer system.

"The 2020 goal always was an ambitious goal," said Carl Simon, interim executive director of environmental group Blue Water Baltimore. "That said, having ambitious goals is motivating."

The harbor initiative, a program of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, launched its report card in 2012 using data collected by Blue Water Baltimore. Some sections of the tidal Patapsco and Gwynns and Jones Falls have received grades as high as a C-minus, but passing grades have never been awarded for overall waterway health.

Blue Water volunteers took nearly 600 samples from 49 sites throughout the Patapsco watershed last year. The data translated to F grades for the harbor and the larger tidal Patapsco, while the Gwynns and Jones falls each received a D-minus.

High levels of fecal bacteria meant it was almost never safe to swim in either of the streams.

But sewage was diluted enough that safe levels were measured 70 percent of the time in Fells Point, Canton and much of the Patapsco's Middle Branch, and 50 percent of the time in waters closer to the Inner Harbor between Harbor Point and Tide Point.

At Fort McHenry and beneath the Key Bridge, bacteria levels were safe 89 and 88 percent of the time, respectively.

But it was only safe to swim in the Inner Harbor 20 percent of the time.

Contact with bacteria-contaminated water can cause dangerous infections, especially if a person has an open cut or wound or a compromised immune system.

While harbor advocates said improved scores could be the result of relatively lighter precipitation around the Patapsco watershed compared to recent years, they said the progress shows the goal could be within reach — once sewer system problems are fixed.

"It's confirming we know what we need to do to fix the problem," he said.

The city has been under a court order to repair its sewer system since 2002, and was supposed to have finished the work to comply with the federal Clean Water Act by the end of 2015. With significant projects still remaining, the city, Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment reached a tentative agreement on a revised plan a year ago, giving five extra years for the most important projects to be completed.

The agreement commits the city to $1.2 billion worth of work over 15 years, with a deadline of 2021 for key projects and 2030 for other work.

Perhaps the most important project, to fix a misaligned main feeding into the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, is needed to eliminate a backup of sewage that stretches 10 miles beneath the city the city. Especially when it rains, the backup often sends sewage overflowing into basements across the city, out of manholes and from two relief valves that release directly into the Jones Falls.

Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for the city Department of Public Works, said the work "has continued without stop, according to plan." As talks with federal and state officials continue, he said the department hopes to release new information about the revised plan soon.

City Public Works Director Rudy Chow is expected to speak at an event unveiling the report card Monday morning, alongside harbor advocates and state lawmakers.

Blue Water Baltimore has pressed for accountability that the work be completed, and next month will host its second "Baltimore Floatilla," in which hundreds of kayakers descend on the Inner Harbor holding signs urging the city to "fix the pipes." Simon said he could not comment on the group's continued efforts to press the city because last year it was granted legal status as a party to the negotiations between the city, state and EPA.

The report card highlights the success of the Healthy Harbor Initiative's Mr. Trash Wheel, which collected 163 tons of trash from the mouth of the Jones Falls at the Inner Harbor, down from 239 tons in 2015.

Lindquist said that decline could also be in part because of the drop in precipitation. But he credited city efforts to distribute trash cans to residents and to increase the frequency of street sweeping.

The report card comes amid signs that similar programs around the Chesapeake Bay watershed are effectively reducing the pollution that washes into the estuary.

While precipitation was relatively low around the Patapsco last year, it was about normal for the larger bay watershed. And yet the Chesapeake posted one of its highest scores ever — on par with drought years — in a recent report card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

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