A harbor transformed swimmingly?

Earth Day came and went this year with a lot of the usual hand-wringing and lofty rhetoric. Cleaning up the environment demands more than that: It requires a plan of action and the resources and commitment to implement it.

The Healthy Harbor Initiative unveiled Wednesday by the Waterfront Partnership could prove the first step in transforming the waters of the Inner Harbor from a murky urban drainage basin to something cleaner and more natural. It is the beginnings of the plan. The question is whether the resources and commitment will follow.

The report sets the ambitious goal of a "swimmable, fishable" harbor where someday visitors might bring not only their walking shoes but their bathing suits and fishing poles. No doubt, some may find such a notion hard to believe — if only because of the decades of toxins accumulated in the harbor's muddy bottom.

The distance between where water quality is today and where it would have to be for hordes of tourists to take the plunge like former Mayor William Donald Schaefer (who wisely restricted his swimming as mayor to the National Aquarium's seal pool) is considerable, but that's not a problem. Setting such an ambitious goal merely sets the city on the right path.

What the authors envision is not only a cleaner Inner Harbor but a cleaner city. Less run-off, less fertilizer and pesticides on lawns and gardens, more native plantings, greater use of public transportation, reduced energy use, more recycling and on and on.

All of it makes sense. What happens in the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls watersheds inevitably flows to the harbor. Merely catching trash as it floats along the harbor's surface is not good enough.

The plan also calls for improvements in and along the harbor itself, including native grasses, floating islands of aquatic habitat, restored marshes, doubling the tree canopy, and wind-driven devices that bubble oxygen into the water. At the very least, such improvements would make the harbor seem more like a part of the Chesapeake Bay.

Implementing all of the report's recommendations would be exceedingly expensive. But many of its strategies are not. Simply educating people on the consequences of their actions could prove helpful. That the city has already collected 1 million cigarette butts on the Jones Falls water wheel in just eight months is testament to that.

A swimmable, fishable Inner Harbor? Only good things can come from attempting to make it so.

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