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Why Baltimore's water quality continues to receive a failing grade

Posted at 6:46 PM, Jun 08, 2016

For the past three years the Baltimore Harbor has scored an ‘F’ rating on the annual Healthy Harbor Report Card. It’s a discouraging trend for those hoping to eventually swim or fish in the water, however, the City is committed to improving conditions and environmental groups plan to keep them to their word.

“This year's report card was another grade ‘F’ and a lot of tributaries and streams are still highly polluted primarily with sewage pollution,” said Halle Van der Gaag, the executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, the non-profit that conducts water monitoring for the report card program.

The pollution is something that’s been going on for a number of years, dating back to the Harbor’s origins.

“It was industrial, ships came in, ships came out, there was trade going on. No one was thinking about how wonderful it is to spend time down here with the family. It was where people worked and where a lot of pollution happened, almost by design,” said Jeffrey Raymond, the chief of communications and community affairs for Baltimore City Department of Public Works.

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The 100-year-old sewer system is another layer contributing to the problem.

“We've had instances where a toilet might literally be flushing directly into the river, not because anyone intentionally did it, but because it was installed 100 years ago,” said Van der Gaag.

She added that failing infrastructure, poor maintenance, as well as the recent discovery of a massive issue are largely to blame for the polluted water.

“There is a constriction where the sewage comes in but the pipe doesn't fit with the inflow to the plant. We found that there was about six and a half feet of misalignment in that last pipe,” Raymond said. 

The misalignment has created a 10-mile back-up of human waste beneath the City. Raymond said they're not sure if it was an engineering error or something that happened over time. Infrastructure improvements addressing the misalignment as well as other issues are currently in the works. The City is expected to address the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant back-up by 2021. That fix alone is estimated to reduce more than 80 percent of the sewer overflow volume in Baltimore.

“There is definitely a reality that fixing that particular problem is going to have a huge impact on reducing sewage pollution in the Jones Falls specifically,” said Van der Gaag.

The City also implemented street sweeping and issued new trash cans to securely keep trash. In addition, Blue Water Baltimore has taken an investigative approach by using DNA markers to track down the sources of pollution.

“There's all sorts of sources of fecal bacteria in the water and being able to identify whether it's human or otherwise also is really part of tracking down those hotspots,” Van der Gaag said.

Still, they need others to do their part, including residents who live in the county.

“Everything flows downhill. Baltimore City sits at the bottom of a bowl and the Patapsco drains to us,” Raymond said.

However, he said it's simple to help improve water quality and residents can start by not putting bacon grease down the sink, avoiding flushing wipes down the toilet, even if they say flushable, and cleaning-up after pets.

“A lot of it's with our own personal behavior changes, picking up after animals, using less fertilizer, making sure you're putting the trash out with a lid, and also looking at your property as a way to manage and collect rainwater,” said Van der Gaag.

The City's goal for a swimmable harbor is 2020. Several major projects won’t be completed until after the deadline. Even so, Raymond said their goal is to prevent more pollutants from reaching the harbor by then so that it can begin healing.