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Merged watershed group aims to clean Baltimore harbor, streams

A year after agreeing to pool their efforts, Baltimore's clean-water activists are unveiling Thursday a new environmental group they hope will bring added influence to the effort to restore the harbor and the degraded rivers and streams that feed into it.

Blue Water Baltimore, the merged offspring of five watershed groups, is launching its new identity with a $1.2 million project to repave alleys and street corners to prevent pollution from washing into nearby water ways whenever it rains.

The new organization, which had been calling itself the Baltimore Water Alliance, aims with a new name and logo to "brand" itself as the leading grass-roots voice for cleaning up the trash, sewage and other pollution fouling the harbor and its watershed, which covers all the city and much of Baltimore County.

Its emergence comes as another nonprofit group, the Waterfront Partnership — bringing together business leaders, city officials and activists — has launched a campaign to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020.

Robert Gray, Blue Water Baltimore's executive director, said that by consolidating staff and resources, the new group can increase and expand the work it does throughout the 194-square-mile watershed.

"We will be stronger," Gray said. "It's starting to show already."

With a combined staff of 11 and a budget of $1.1 million, the group formed from the merger of five groups with similar aims and overlapping territory. They were the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association, Gwynns Falls Watershed Association, Herring Run Watershed Association and Jones Falls Watershed Association.

The groups each organized periodic cleanups of trash along their designated stream banks and tree plantings. They also encouraged residents to plant "rain gardens" to soak up potentially polluted runoff and to drain their home downspouts into rain barrels.

"I think we've all matured beyond picking up trash and planting trees," said Halle Van der Gaag, deputy director of the new group and formerly executive director of the Jones Falls association.

The repaving project, dubbed "Blue Alleys & Neighborhoods," aims to test locally an alternative way of curtailing runoff in densely populated urban areas, where tree planting and rain gardens aren't practical.

Working with city officials, Blue Water plans to make over a handful of alleys and street corners in East Baltimore with permeable pavement, so that rain will soak into the ground rather than run off into the nearest storm drain, carrying trash, oil and pet waste with it. Such urban runoff is a major source of the pollution fouling the area's streams and the harbor.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is providing $600,000, while the city has pledged $300,000, with the remainder representing donated services of local consultants.

The new group will have its headquarters in the environmentally friendly building in Belair-Edison that housed the Herring Run Watershed Assocation.

The harbor waterkeeper will still work within the new group to monitor water conditions, advocate for stronger policies and see that pollution laws are enforced, according to Eliza Smith Steinmeier, the waterkeeper and a lawyer.

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