There was sunshine, blue sky and a speech noting small signs of progress yesterday when about 300 people paddled Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as part of a rally for clean water.
But lest the kayakers, canoeists, dragon boat teams and stand-up paddle-boarders get too carried away with optimism, the Irony Gods arranged a little demonstration.
There, floating off the waters of Canton Waterfront Park, the starting point of the 2nd Annual Baltimore Floatilla, was a large, dead fish.
“You know it’s possible it was a boat propeller that got him,” a man speculated, paddling over to examine the carcass. “That happens sometimes.”
“I just saw a fish jump!” a nearby teenage paddler proclaimed moments later.
That’s pretty much how the day went for participants. One minute, they’d spot a duck or great blue heron. The next minute a plastic Gatorade bottle would float by or a scent of sewage rise up.
“It’s getting better, but it’s not done,” said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a sponsor along with Blue Water Baltimore. The event is an initiative of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.
Veteran urban kayaker Gail daMota offered a more graphic assessment at the end of the five-mile event, describing what happens at Baltimore’s harbor and other urban waterways after a rain:
“The sewage gets washed into the water and it is really disgusting,” said daMota of Alexandria. “It’s not quite as bad here as the Anacostia (River), but it’s bad and more needs to be done.”
“I picked up so much trash today,” she added, recommending organizers next year encourage paddlers to help out and bag it up.
“I’m very concerned about the environment,” said fellow kayaker Luci Hollingsworth, of West Friendship in Howard County, pointing offshore to waters that lead directly to Chesapeake Bay. “This is our backyard.”
The unsavory truth that the participants were gamely paddling through is that city sewage clean-up efforts over decades have made scarcely a dent.
The “fishable and swimmable by 2020” goal, set during the Stephanie Rawlings-Blake administration, feels more laughable than laudable to some.
“I don’t see any progress from the city. I’ve been out here on my Old Town canoe since the 70s and I’ve gone to all the protests,” said Marvin Johnston of Pikesville. “Big fish-kills, sewage in the water, it never ends.”
Now Chesapeake Bay clean-up funding is at risk. Protecting that federal funding was the focus of this year’s Floatilla, with speakers noting that President Donald Trump has proposed cutting it.
Several carried signs that said “Fund the Bay.”
One man’s sign was written on a broken “pipe” that was “leaking” thanks to a solar-powered pump pulling water up through a plastic tube hanging off the side of his kayak.
The display neatly wove this year’s Floatilla theme together with last year’s: pushing the city to fix the aging infrastructure it has promised to repair as part of multiple consent decrees with the federal government.
The city released more than three million gallons of sewage into Baltimore waterways just last month.
These releases are necessary to prevent sewage from backing up across the city, but they also violate the 1972 Clean Water Act. After missing the first deadline, the city renegotiated its 2002 agreement and is on a new timetable aimed at someday ending the practice.
Meanwhile, water quality data show continued massive fecal bacteria spikes right next to luxury waterfront hotels, condos and tourist attractions.
Again this year, the Partnership’s annual “Healthy Harbor Report Card” gave Baltimore and the tidal Patapsco an “F.” The Gwynn’s Falls and Jones Falls received another D-.
“I Want the Water to be Nice”
For first-time paddler Sellard Lee, 17, a rising senior at Digital Harbor High School, the day taught him that canoeing is “fun but tiring.” As for the pollution issue, Lee said he already knows about it.
“This water is really dirty,” said Lee, who rides the bus to school from Cedonia and enjoys walking by the harbor when the weather is nice.
“Every day I see people throwing trash,” he said. “The other day I saw something that was so nasty in the water over near the Rusty Scupper I don’t like to say it – a condom.”
Lee was on the water as part of a student group supervised by Digital Harbor teacher Nicole Veltrie-Luton.
Students at that school and others in the city get to go outside and ride bicycles and take camping trips and boat rides as part of Inspiring Connections Outdoors, Veltrie Luton said.
A project of the Baltimore Sierra Club, “it needs more support,” she stressed.
Lee seemed to be just the kind of kid the group wants to inspire.
“I don’t like to be inside all the time, especially when it’s nice like this today,” he said, looking around at the colorful array of boats. “I want to get outside and I want the water to be nice and clean.”