“F” is for “Filthy:” Ongoing efforts to clean up Baltimore’s harbor continue to fail
Baltimore’s harbor got its annual report card today, an assessment of its ecological health in 2013 given by the Healthy Harbor campaign, a collaborative effort of Baltimore City, Baltimore County, the water-quality advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), and the Waterfront Partnership, a business group. It failed, of course.
Anyone who spends time around or in the harbor would know this, just by using their eyes and noses: More times than not, it’s a murky, stinky, trash-strewn mess, sometimes befouled by algae blooms and floating, rotting dead fish (pictured). But the report card puts actual numbers on everyone’s gut instincts, a helpful set of measurements that show how bad it really is and a description of ongoing efforts meant to guide its potential for improvement. What’s clear is there’s a long way to go before the harbor gets a passing grade—much less achieves Health Harbor’s goal of a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020. But efforts to reach that threshold hold a modicum of promise.
The bad news should raise flags for those who like to play in the harbor’s waters, like kayakers, jet-skiers, and crabbers or those who fish. Most of the time, the water in the Inner Harbor and Middle Branch of the Patapsco River failed to meet the safe-to-swim standard, thanks to bacterial pollution. In the main stem of the Patapsco, off Fort McHenry, the standard was met 70-80 percent of the time. As the report card states, “water quality scores were lowest in Baltimore’s streams and Harbor, where there was a high risk of becoming sick from recreating in the water.” That means that harbor water often contains pathogens that can cause illness—not only when swimming, but when it contacts an open cut or gets into your eyes or mouth from, say, splashing water or a wet hand that’s been handling a paddle or a fish.
The harbor overall received failing grades for water clarity and concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus, the latter two being indicators of excessive storm-water pollution. It got a C+ for dissolved oxygen, so it usually supports aquatic life. But, as the report states, this finding is “because low dissolved oxygen events are short in duration and therefore not always captured by the sampling program.” But, as City Paper has reported—here and here, for example—it doesn’t always support life, and the die-off events make for awful olfactory esthetics. As the Sun reported in April, there’s already been one of them this year.
The report card also summarizes how Baltimore’s efforts in 2013 to reduce trash, storm-water, and bacteria entering the harbor and the Patapsco, compared to 2012, are a mixed bag. While street sweeping collected slightly more trash, the miles of streets actually swept dropped a little. There was a significant uptick in the number of storm drains painted so that residents are aware that what goes in them ends up in the harbor. While more trees were planted, fewer rain barrels were installed and fewer free water audits—consultations that give property owners advice on how to reduce runoff—were conducted. The number of sewer overflows and the amount of sewage overflowing in Baltimore City and Baltimore County both declined dramatically—though, as BWB documented last year and City Paper has reported in detail in the past, the official accounting on this score is wide open for skepticism. Also, as City Paper recently showed, sewage overflows continue to be a nettlesome problem, though they tend to barely register as matters of public concern.
The good news is that the Healthy Harbor report card shows modest improvement over the one issued in 2012—which, much like a coddling teacher may give struggling students higher grades than they deserved, handed out a C+. And city officials are optimistic that improvements to the harbor’s health are imminent, and that lessons from the past have been taken to heart.
“This is going to be so much better,” said Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), in a recent interview with City Paper. “These things don’t happen overnight. These steps that we are taking and have been taking and are accelerating, really, are going to pay off. Look at the history of this harbor – the tanneries, the sewer lines that went straight into the Jones Falls.” Another DPW spokesmen, Jeffrey Raymond, added that “I don’t think you look at it as you reach a point when you can stop” working on pollution abatement. “That was a mistake that was made generations ago.”
As the report card suggests, it continues to be a tough road to right the mistakes of the past.