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Clean Up the Harbor

Photo: Illustrations by Tom Chalkley, License: N/A

Illustrations by Tom Chalkley

No one really expects anyone to swim or fish in the heavily polluted Baltimore Harbor. And yet people do both, ignoring the publicized warnings of health and environmental officials. Jet skiing, stand-up paddling, and kayaking are common on the harbor’s waters, and all involve getting in direct contact with the fouled water, thereby risking infection from waterborne pathogens that can lead to staph infections or hepatitis A.

Obviously, the solution is not to get people to stop such risky behavior. The solution is to clean up the water, as the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) requires.

Since 2002, expensive efforts have been underway to do just that: a so-called “consent decree” under a CWA lawsuit brought by state and federal environmental agencies, requiring the city to spend almost a billion dollars to plug up its chronically leaky sewer system. Yet, despite numerous hikes on water-and-sewer rates paid by users to underwrite the effort, it often seems the harbor’s water is just as disgusting as it’s been for ages. Fish kills, algal blooms, and what are known as “turnover events”—when sulphur-loving bacteria float to the surface, emitting nasty odors and turning the water shockingly unnatural shades—all have continued to bedevil the city’s waterfront communities.

Efforts by a local clean-water advocacy group, Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), to force improvements by letting them become a party in the CWA lawsuit were rebuffed by a judge this year, but their efforts to do so included excellent documentation of how poorly the effort is being overseen by state and federal environmental agencies, and how persistent ongoing sewage pollution has been as a result.

Perhaps, then, a measurable goal could be established for 2014, something to strive for that would make the water in the harbor—which is formally known as the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River—a bit less of a public-health and quality-of-life threat, with the added benefit that the harbor’s water could, if all goes well, actually be an economic-development asset rather than a dirty downer for people’s Baltimore experience.

City Paper asked BWB’s Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper, David Flores, if there was “a water-quality measurement for the Northwest Branch that could serve as a goal for achievement in 2014.” His answer: getting the harbor’s waters to consistently meet the state’s “weakest standard for body-contact recreation,” which is “500 colonies Enterococcus fecal bacteria MPN/100mL.”

Yes, this is the type of terminology such goals require, and there’s work to be done. Flores says BWB’s water-monitoring program covering the Northwest Branch consists of four stations, and the average for 2012 and 2013 for all of them comes to 1,235 colonies Enterococcus fecal bacteria MPN/100mL—with the 2013 number, at 234, actually coming in substantially below 500. It’s the 2012 number—2,466—that was horrendous.

So there you have it—in 2014, let’s get that average number to stay down below 500 for the harbor. Maybe then ratepayers will gradually start to think they’re getting a bang for their consent-decree bucks, people won’t risk dread diseases when they happen to come in contact with the water, and the local economy won’t suffer from the tourist-stifling stink the harbor’s reek has wrought.

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