Inner Harbor still not fit for swimming (or fish)

Visitors to Inner Harbor confronted with dead fish and stinky algae bloom last May. Latest report card says harbor's health still poor, but efforts to change that starting to grow. (Adam Lindquist, Waterfront Partnership / October 4, 2012)

Baltimore's ailing harbor remains fouled by trash and pollution that make it largely unfit for swimming, but cleanup efforts are starting to pick up steam, according to the latest report card on the urban water body's health.

The Waterfront Partnership, a group of harbor businesses, tourist attractions and city agencies, released its first update Thursday on the two-year-old Healthy Harbor campaign aimed at making it swimmable and fishable by 2020. The report card found water quality did not improve overall last year, when compared with the initial assessment the year before.

Representatives of the partnership and of Blue Water Baltimore, the harbor watershed watchdog group, said it likely would take years of cleanup to show real improvement in water quality. But they added that some important first steps have been taken toward reducing the trash and pollution degrading the harbor.

"I think we're off to a good start, but there's much, much more to be done," said Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Waterfront Partnership.

The report card, which relied on sampling by Blue Water Baltimore, the state Department of Natural Resources and the city, found a small improvement in dissolved oxygen levels and clarity in the water, but worse algae blooms. The harbor water has the lowest oxygen levels in the region to support fish and shellfish, the report noted. Bacteria levels from sewage leaks and spills and from stormwater runoff exceeded state health standards in most of the harbor, though portions of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River fared better during dry weather, said David Flores, restoration manager for Blue Water.

But heavy rains that fell repeatedly last year aggravated the harbor's water quality, the group said, triggering a massive sewage overflow in the spring and flooding the harbor and the bay with sediment and nutrient pollution after Tropical Storm Lee.

Baltimore city's budget woes also limit its ability to deal with its pollution problems, Schwartz said, but steps are being taken to address that. Prompted by a new state mandate, city officials are moving to levy a fee on property owners to pay for retrofitting storm drains, plant rain gardens and other measures to curb pollution washing off city streets and parking lots.  Baltimore voters will be asked in a ballot question next month to approve creation of a separate fee-based fund for dealing with storm-water runoff, and if it passes, officials are expected to start levying a fee next year.

"We are hopeful that within the next two years we'll be able to organize, staff up and we'll see more projects," Schwartz said.

In the meantime, advocates say, neighborhood and individual efforts to clean up and green the city appear to be growing.  Improving the harbor's health will require a broad-based effort encompassing the whole city as well as Baltimore County, the source of the streams that empty into the harbor.

"It's got to be more than government, more than nonprofits, it's got to be everybody," said Tina Meyers, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

The partnership sought to highlight volunteers' contributions by staging the release of the report card in McElderry Park in Northeast Baltimore, where the community group Civic Works helped install a rain garden to keep some polluted rainfall from washing down storm drains. Students from Tench Tilghman elementary/middle school were scheduled to paint storm drains there to reinforce the message that the health of the harbor relies on keeping the city's streets and gutters clean of trash and pollution.

To see the report card and learn about cleanup efforts, go here.