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Environmentby Fern Shen6:55 pmJun 18, 20240

This year’s water quality report card tells the grim truth about the overall state of Baltimore Harbor

The harbor, Patapsco River and Gwynns Falls not only got “F” grades, but posted slightly worse marks than in 2022. This comes two decades after Baltimore signed a consent decree to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act.

Above: Another year of failing “ecosystem health” grades for the Patapsco watershed, including Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (Blue Water Baltimore)

It’s report card time for Baltimore’s waterways and, as they have for the past 11 years, they flunked.

Baltimore Harbor, the Patapsco River and the Gwynns Falls not only got failing grades, but have been trending slightly downward over that past decade. The Jones Falls has improved, slightly.

From downtown monitoring stations at the Inner Harbor to suburban spots like Lake Roland in Baltimore County to industrial waterfront sites like Curtis Bay near the collapsed Key Bridge – the water as measured last year got “F” grades, meaning “very poor” overall quality, according to Blue Water Baltimore, which released its annual report today.

The causes cited are familiar ones: “sewage overflows, uncontrolled stormwater runoff, malfunctioning wastewater treatment plants, and other problems on land [that] contribute excessive nutrients to our waterways which ultimately lead to algae blooms and fish kills.”

The report has some flickers of good news – upgrades to the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant appear to be having some good effect in far South Baltimore – but the main takeaway of the data is the nothing-new aspect, according to the watchdog group’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, Alice Volpitta.

Baltimore remains “in status quo,” awash in periodic sewage overflows and polluted street run-off, she says, despite several billion dollars spent on upgrades since the city entered into a 2002 consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“We have to do more if we want to move the needle,” said Volpitta, who sees it all as she goes out in hip waders to collect samples and document fishkills, along with wrangling the data from 49 stations.

Consistently alarming levels of chlorophyll in the Inner Harbor “tell us we’re having a low-level algae bloom pretty much all the time”  – Alice Volpitta.

The Blue Water team monitors the presence of bacteria and also collects data on a number of parameters including chlorophyll, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, nitrogen and phosphorus, rolling them into an overall eco-health score.

Collectively and individually, each one tells a story.

Consistently alarming levels of chlorophyll in the Inner Harbor, for instance, “tell us we’re having a low-level algae bloom pretty much all the time,” Volpitta remarked.

“That’s indicative of the untreated stormwater runoff and this constant feed of sewage entering our waterways, occurring even on dry days,” she pointed out, meaning the water is not only hostile to aquatic life but potentially a health risk to humans.

Annual Water Quality Report Card for 2024 the Patapsco and tributaries with data from 2023. (Blue Water Baltimore)

Annual Water Quality Report Card for the Patapsco and its tributaries with data from 2023. (Blue Water Baltimore)

The grade scale in the report ranges from a dark green “A” for a score of 90%-100% (meaning “very good” water quality) to a maroon “F” for a score of 0%-59% (“very poor” water quality).

Very poor water quality means the site is in impaired condition and cannot sustain a healthy habitat for fish and shellfish.

report card blue water additional data

A spin through the data shows how little has changed since the group began publishing its reports a decade ago. Take the Jones Falls Outlet, where the waterway dumps out between Pier 6 and the Marriott Harbor East, emptying everything from an expansive watershed into the tourist waterfront:

In 2014, that spot had an overall score of “F” with 50%. In the latest report, that location came in at 57% – better but still a solid “F.”

The enterococcus bacteria readings for that spot, which came in “very poor” a decade ago, are still “poor” at 69%.

PR “Splash” to the Rescue?

As Volpitta sees it, the report’s findings fly in the face of City Hall’s recent embrace of promotional events encouraging people to literally jump into harbor waters.

Volpitta noted that, following state and federal law, Baltimore City posts signs warning people of potential health hazards, even along small creeks.

But it has resisted calls to erect the same signage along the tourist waterfront where people enjoy boating, kayaking, paddle boats and fishing.

“We believe that, based on existing law, Baltimore City is breaking the law every time there’s a sewage overflow, rain or shine, that negatively impacts the Inner Harbor and beyond,” she said.

“It’s irresponsible not to let people know that our local waterways are subject to sewage overflows,” she said. “That’s just the truth. That’s just the facts. And it’s the law.”

People, including the immunocompromised, need to get as much information as they can before making their own judgement about whether to come in contact with Baltimore water, said Volpitta, noting, “I’ve seen people get sick from it.”

“I know the water is safe, and that’s why I’ll be jumping in the harbor”  – Mayor Brandon Scott.

This Sunday (June 23) Mayor Brandon Scott plans to join 150 people who have signed up to jump into the water in Fells Point as part of the Waterfront Partnership’s “Harbor Splash event.

Asked by The Brew why the city does not post warning signs at the Inner Harbor, the city Health Department has not replied.

The Harbor Splash website says test results show that harbor waters consistently “meet the swimming standard during dry weather.”

Volpitta says this is misleading since the Waterfront Partnership’s promotion fails to take into account SDOs (Sanitary Discharges of Unknown Origin) that happen because of illicit sewer connections or cracks and breaks in the system.

“SDOs are happening, rain or shine,” she said. “The notion that as long as it hasn’t rained we’re totally safe doesn’t hold up in an urban ecosystem like the Baltimore Harbor.”

“I know the water is safe,” Scott says on the event website, “and that’s why I’ll be jumping in the harbor.”

Sewage Overflows on the Rise

Rain is a major driver of waterway health in the region because it washes land-based pollutants into the streams and rivers. But the Blue Water report says there’s more at play than intense storms related to global warming and climate change.

“We’re seeing this troubling pattern over the course of the past couple of years where, even though rainfall here happened to actually decrease, we’ve been seeing increasing sewage overflows in Baltimore and Baltimore County,” Volpitta noted.

What could be causing this?

The report points to the failure of the city and county to do more to stop polluting runoff at its source by building “green infrastructure,” like rain gardens and bioswales, to encourage water to soak into the ground rather than sluice away as run-off into the Chesapeake Bay.

“Our current regulatory permits don’t do enough to curb the volume of stormwater that gushes through our streets and streams every time it rains,” the report said. “We need more nature-based solutions that improve both water quality and quantity in order to meaningfully improve watershed health.”

Critics call one Baltimore stream restoration project “a debacle” as DPW pushes ahead with another (6/7/24)

Sewer overflows and basement backups persist in Baltimore despite federal consent decree (1/18/24)

DPW underreports volume of sewage dumped into the Jones Falls (6/1/18)

The other culprit is the infrastructure that’s failing in spite of massive public spending.

“We’ve pumped billions of dollars into our underground pipes and into our wastewater treatment plants, but we’re still not seeing the improvements that would to get us to the right place where we have a thriving ecosystem,” Volpitta said.

She was referring to the contracts awarded to comply with the 2002 federal consent decree to end the intentional release of sewage-laden rainwater by 2012. One project alone, to build a new “headworks” at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, cost more than $430 million dollars.

“We need more nature-based solutions that improve both water quality and quantity”  – Alice Volpitta.

Even after the headworks completion in 2021, which included the installation of huge underground holding tanks to catch sewage during intense rainstorms, overflows persist.

Massive releases of untreated sewage flowing down the Jones Falls are still occurring from two overflow relief pipes at 1901 Falls Road, near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, and at 428 East Preston Street underground.

Other spots, like a sewer stack at 3900 Belair Road, will erupt and dump up to seven or eight million gallons of tainted wastewater into Herring Run from a single storm.

“Everyone was excited when the headworks finally came on line,” Volpitta said. “But what we now know is, the interceptor line – the main trunk line, the big pipe carrying sewage to the plant – is caked full of unflushable wipes and other sewage debris.”

Until the city scrapes that pipe clean, sewage intended to reach the plant will instead back up for miles in the underground pipe and leak into basements and streams.

Which means that the consent decree, already modified once because of missed deadlines, “will probably have to be modified again,” she remarked.

Funding smart infrastructure fixes and doubling down on green approaches to curbing stormwater, the report says, is the only effective way to achieve a swimmable and fishable harbor.

“That goal is not some pie-in-the-sky punchline,” Volpitta says. “It’s right there in the Clean Water Act, written over 5o years ago by Congress.”

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