Health & Wellness

The Water Cure

Is the vision of a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020 a possibility? Or a pipe dream?

Two-dozen curious environmentalists, taking a bike tour of something described as the Harris Creek Watershed, stop pedaling, and pull up in front of the Patterson Park branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Their tires come to a rest over several large, metal stormwater grates. They’ve already toured Real Food Farm on the grounds of Lake Clifton High School, where they were told the watershed’s headwaters begin. They’ve toured Duncan Street’s Miracle Farm, built on a vacant block in East Baltimore. They’ve ridden south past the Baltimore Recycling Center, Collington Square Park, the Reggie Lewis Memorial Basketball Courts, and bustling but trash-strewn Frank C. Bocek Park.

However, there’s been no sign—visible or otherwise—of Harris Creek. Not until a whiff of putrid air emanating from the aforementioned storm grates smacks Joy Goodie, atop her bike, square in the nostrils.

“Oh, it smells bad,” blurts Goodie, turning her head just before the stench hits everyone else, including her husband and two kids. “It’s repugnant.”

“That’s Harris Creek,” deadpans Leanna Wetmore, program coordinator with Banner Neighborhoods and a tour volunteer with organizer Ben Peterson. Wetmore notes the creek now runs entirely beneath the city, long ago co-opted into the massive underground storm-water system. “The water’s visible if you look down there,” Wetmore adds as a few brave souls take a peek. “When there’s a really big storm, the drains back up and flood this whole area. It can move cars parked here.”

Hard to imagine today, but Maryland Historical Society paintings from the late 1800s actually show boats sailing on the creek through Patterson Park to Canton and the harbor.

Peterson explains to the group—still slightly stunned by the odorous discovery of Harris Creek—that the city’s century-old sewage pipes (some made of wood) run parallel to equally antiquated stormwater pipes. When the outdated sewage lines inevitably bust, raw waste flows into the stormwater lines, entering the harbor untreated. And when thundershowers just as inevitably overwhelm the stormwater system, trash and chemical pollutants from streets, rooftops, and pavement get whisked downstream.

Of course, it’s not just buried Harris Creek that is regularly debased, but the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls, Middle Branch and Patapsco River, among other harbor tributaries. At the tour’s end, where Harris Creek empties into the harbor, not far from Canton’s Waterfront Park, where residents once swam and crabbed and local clergy dunked their flock in full-immersion baptisms, frustrated activist Raymond Bahr calls healing the harbor, “mission impossible.”

And, yet, three years ago, the Waterfront Partnership—along with a mix of nonprofits, business leaders, city officials, and harbor advocates—set a public goal, in consultation with environmental scientists: Make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020.

“Just think, to not only stand at the edge of the harbor but to dangle your feet in the water and jump in,” Waterfront Partnership President Laurie Schwartz suggested when the Healthy Harbor initiative and “swimmable, fishable” goal was announced in 2009. “Downtown Chicago has a beach . . . why can’t we?” It’s a good question, but only last year the Maryland Department of the Environment shot down an effort by the Baltimore Rowing Club to host a triathlon.

At the same time, other cities have reclaimed their iconic waterways, at least to an extent. The Boston Harbor is now referred to as a “jewel” by the EPA decades after The Standells mocked the city’s harbor in their 1966 hit “Dirty Water” and the first George Bush blamed Michael Dukakis for dumping “500 million gallons of barely treated sewage” daily into the harbor during the 1988 presidential campaign. Striped bass and shellfish can be caught in Boston Harbor today, and recreational swimming has returned as well. New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., all hold annual swimming events in the tested waters of the Hudson, the Schuylkill, and the Potomac.

By coincidence, the morning following the Harris Creek tour, the Waterfront Partnership released the most comprehensive report ever on the harbor’s water quality. The grade: C-. Those who compiled the report, however, admit the harbor was scored on a large curve. The C- indicated that the harbor’s overall water quality was acceptable only 40 percent of the time; a score of 50 would’ve been considered a mid-range “C,” indicating that water quality met acceptable standards on half of the days.

“As it was, in our system, the grade was just percentage points above a D+,” says Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Tina Meyers, who assisted in compiling the report card. “If you used high-school grades, it would be F’s all the way from zero to 60 percent.”

The study measured nitrogen, phosphorus levels, chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen, and water clarity—sunlight being necessary for healthy underwater plants and organisms—at 28 locations from the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry to South Baltimore’s Middle Branch area. Or, all water west of the Harbor Tunnel.

The study did not quantify levels of trash, which doesn’t have comparable standards—except that you know it when you see it. “Litter wasn’t tested. If it was, it would receive a failing grade,” says Adam Lindquist, the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor coordinator.

Lindquist doesn’t dismiss the 2020 “swimmable, fishable” goal, but acknowledges the pace of efforts needs to be stepped up. “It’s an aggressive goal, but you need to set goals and then gather data to measure progress.”

District 1 Councilman James Kraft, the City Council’s strongest environmental advocate, isn’t quite ready to dismiss the 2020 target, either. He emphasizes, however, “We need to do something really bold. These grades are important, but we have a long, long way to go.”

At the June release of the Healthy Harbor report, Kraft highlighted two bills he’s sponsoring or co-sponsoring to help clean up the harbor. One is a ban on polystyrene—the ubiquitous carryout foam containers and cups that all too often end up floating in the city’s waterways. The other proposal is a 10-cent fee on plastic bags from retailers, convenience stores, and supermarkets. He hopes each passes, but the polystyrene vote was postponed shortly before Baltimore went to press.

Both Kraft and Councilman Brandon Scott note the positive impact a bag fee in D.C. has had on the Anacostia River. Scott believes the measure would change consumer behavior and tweeted that getting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her administration “to agree to use it [revenue from the bill] for green initiatives is key” to the legislation’s overall success.

“Sometimes in Baltimore, we’re guilty of living in a vacuum. There are things we see working in other cities, but we keep doing things the way we’ve done them forever,” Scott says. “For Baltimore to move into the 21st century, to become a sustainable city, we have to change that mindset.

“We have more plastic bags in the streams than fish,” Scott adds. “If you go to Herring Run Park, all you see is plastic bags.”

Beyond plastic bags and foam cups and containers, Kraft dreams of one day opening Harris Creek up again near Canton’s Lakewood Street. More significantly, he’d really like to see the Jones Falls opened up from the Penn Station area down to the Inner Harbor, where it’s buried under concrete. It’s a process known as “daylighting” and has been done with the Saw Mill River, for example, buried for some 90 years in downtown Yonkers. Partly, it’s an effort to improve aesthetics and return natural landscape to the city, but it would also eliminate pavement and, potentially, runoff. Kraft says it would help Baltimoreans become more conscious of their environment and its value.

“We need to daylight some of these streams we have in Baltimore and take up the concrete,” he says. “We need to study it and make it work. When Sheila [Dixon] was mayor, she talked about wanting to do it with the Jones Falls.”

In the immediate future, Kraft and others say improving stormwater management, starting with a greater cooperation from Department of Public Works, remains the single biggest factor in improving harbor water quality. Kraft says the DPW needs to hand out 5,000 trashcans in under-served areas and do a better job of sweeping streets. At the same time, he adds, as much impervious surface as possible needs to be replaced with parks, trees, and green roofs. Rain gardens and rain barrels can also be used to offset runoff. High-tech materials, such as pervious concrete, can replace traditional parking surfaces as well. The Maryland Science Center, for example, is planning on tearing up its lot in favor of a pervious surface.

It’s exactly the stormwater crises, affecting much of the Chesapeake Bay, that the so-called “rain tax,” passed by the General Assembly, is designed to address. Ten jurisdictions, including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll, and Harford counties, had to establish a stormwater fee structure—generally based on square-footage—by July 1 to fund infrastructure improvements.

“Bacteria [from fecal matter] is actually not the main problem,” says Kraft, who drives a Prius and proudly points to the fact that his Canton waterfront district received the highest mark, a C+, in the Healthy Harbor report. “It’s polluted stormwater that’s making it unhabitable for life, that causes the dead zones and the fish kills.”

That said, sewage spills remain a tremendous problem for Baltimore, and, in fact, the city is under a 2002 EPA consent decree to address “continuing hazards posed by hundreds of illegal wastewater discharges of raw sewage. . . .” The agreement requires the city to complete an extensive sewer upgrade by 2016, a timeline city officials are negotiating to push back several years. Kraft says that the city, despite increasing sewage fees, lacks the funds to complete the overhaul, with an original cost projection of $1 billion, on time. But the work will eventually get done, he says.

“One of the good things is this is not just the ‘greenies’ tilting at windmills, it’s everyone, it’s a unified front,” Kraft says, referring to what he views, finally, as a citywide commitment for cleaning up the harbor. “That’s including leaders in the business community who want this to get done because they see a clean harbor as an economic engine for tourism, for attracting businesses, and for attracting employees.”

Meyers, the harbor’s waterkeeper, goes on the water every Wednesday at 7 a.m. on a 16-foot, Honda C-Dory, gathering samples at precise GPS locations, from beneath the Domino Sugars sign to newly added spots at Bear Creek in Dundalk and Curtis Bay. She’s employed by Blue Water Baltimore, which grew out of five local clean-water organizations in 2010. Also, starting this year, she’s leading teams that track water quality in the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls.

Meyers studied environmental science and biology at the University of Rochester and has a law degree from SUNY University at Buffalo School of Law. Previously, she worked as an attorney at the University of Maryland School of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic. She says her affinity for the water developed growing up in Buffalo, near Lake Erie, where her father still has a boat. While she wears protective gloves when she dips her hands in the harbor, she remains optimistic about its future. She notes, for example, that even if most of the sewage upgrades, per EPA decree, aren’t finished until 2019, that still fits inside the 2020 timeline.

“I’d say the goal is ‘fishable, swimmable by 2020’ with an asterisk,” Meyers says. “Swimming may not be possible, but boating and working on the water can be made safer from a health standpoint. I’d like it to be safe for someone to drop a line in the water, to fish and crab. At the same time, they should probably release their catch because of the PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] and mercury in the sediment—these aren’t just environmental issues, but public-health issues for everyone.

“Sewage, stormwater, trash, toxins—we have all these problems,” Meyers says. “The good news is they are absolutely solvable. I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought otherwise.”

If nothing else, Kraft says, perhaps only half-joking, “These boys I see who are [illegally] crabbing, it’ll be less likely they will be glowing in the dark after they eat their crabs.”