As ‘Heartbeat’ Report Shows Harbor Water Quality Improvement, Nonprofit Seeks to Ramp Up Water Sports

An aerial view of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Photo from stock.adobe.com.

As a new report shows that Baltimore waterways are becoming safer for swimming, a nonprofit group plans to construct a 15-mile water trail system along the shoreline, from Inner Harbor down to Middle Branch into Ridgley’s Cove, to increase access for paddling and kayaking.

The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore announced the trail plan and released its annual water quality report, called Harbor Heartbeat, on Thursday. The report shows that levels of fecal bacteria in city waterways are declining and approaching swimmable levels — though improvements are still needed.

The partnership, which is dedicated to beautifying the city’s waterfront, began the Healthy Harbor initiative in 2010 with a target of making the harbor safe enough to swim and fish in. The initiative uses routine water samples collected by Blue Water Baltimore, an environmental advocacy group.

Water was safe for swimming in 57% to 100% of samples collected in areas like Jones Falls, Canton and Fort McHenry, according to the report. Water in Middle Branch was safe for swimming in 70% to 100% of samples. Generally, the farther the water is from the core of the city, the lower bacteria levels are, according to the report.

Parts of the Gwynns Falls Watershed in western Baltimore and Baltimore County had unsafe levels of fecal matter most of the time, but bacteria levels improved from last year. The Jones Falls Watershed was safe for swimming 70% of the time.

To Adam Lindquist, director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, the main takeaway from this year’s report is that bacteria levels are continuing to improve, which is in line with last year’s trend assessment that showed more swimmable days in the Harbor today than there were a decade ago.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted water monitoring in Baltimore waterways meaning there was a smaller sample size than usual. As a result, the report only includes updated bacteria levels but no new ecosystem health data.

Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Waterkeeper of Blue Water Baltimore, said she was only able to start collecting samples by the end of May 2020, which meant sampling that year was skewed to the hottest and wettest months of the year.

“It’s really hard to draw meaningful conclusions from the 2020 data because our sampling design was so affected by external circumstances,” Volpitta said. “That makes the long-term nature of our work so important because…we will still be able to use that data in modeling and trend analyses that will show us how the water quality is changing over time.”

The analysis in Harbor Heartbeat only includes samples from dry weather days — at least 48 hours after rainfalls of more than half an inch — since bacteria can rise to dangerous levels because of sewer overflows and stormwater runoff during heavy rains, Lindquist said. Usually 49 sites are sampled 8-12 times in a year, but only 25 sites were sampled more than six times in 2020, according to the report.

Blue Water Baltimore usually monitors non-tidal streams once a month and tidal stations once every two weeks between April through November, Volpitta said.

Lindquist attributed the declining bacteria levels to improvements to Baltimore’s century-old sewer system. Rainwater finds its way into the sewer system and often goes over capacity, which causes sewage to overflow into the Baltimore’s streams and the Harbor, Lindquist said.

Baltimore’s $430 million Headworks Project aims to curtail 80% of the city’s sewage overflows into the Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay and began operations in May. This project helps fulfill Baltimore’s Sanitary Sewer Consent Decree with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Justice and Maryland Department of the Environment, which requires it to upgrade its aging sewage system and eliminate sewage overflows by 2030.

Volpitta said she cannot point to exactly what is causing bacteria levels in Baltimore waterways to decrease, but it is a good indication that the city’s sewer projects are working.

While decreasing bacteria levels indicate that Baltimore’s waterways are getting safer for people to swim and fish in, other water quality indicators such as dissolved oxygen levels and clarity have not changed significantly since 2013, resulting in low ecosystem health scores.

“Bacteria content is a really good indicator of public health risk, but it’s not the whole picture,” Volpitta said. “We also have to keep an eye on pollutants that are negatively affecting ecosystem health.”

Since 2013, the Harbor has recorded healthy levels of dissolved oxygen but was also home to high levels of dangerous nitrogen and phosphorus. At the same time, Baltimore streams have scored consistently well in dissolved oxygen, pH and temperature levels but have high levels of in nitrogen, phosphorus and water conductivity — which means there are too many salts and chemicals in streams that could harm fish. The main cause of high conductivity is road salt, Lindquist said.

This shows that Baltimore may be spending a lot on repairing the sewer system, but not enough on projects that would reduce stormwater runoff, which would reduce the amount of pollution flowing into waterways and improve ecosystem health, Lindquist said.

“A lot of people think the Harbor is a dead waterway, but it’s not — the Harbor is full of fish and blue crabs and waterfowl. It’s a really amazing ecosystem, but it is under a lot of stress and it needs more protection and restoration,” he said.

Increasing green infrastructure by planting more trees, building rain gardens and permeable surfaces can help capture stormwater runoff and improve the Harbor’s ecosystem, he continued.

The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore announced Thursday that it is accepting proposals from planning firms to create the water trail plan in the Baltimore Harbor through Oct. 22.

“Right now, there’s a little bit of a wild west thing going on in the Baltimore Harbor — there’s no rules of the road for paddling, but there should be,” Lindquist said.

“A water trail would provide recommended routes for paddlers that really emphasize the importance of paddling along the perimeter of the Harbor to stay out of harm’s way,” Lindquist said. It would also include more access points that are more paddler friendly with things like bathrooms and water bottle filling stations, he continued.

“I’m all in favor of expanding recreational uses of local waterways because ultimately people want to protect what they know about and what they care about,” Volpitta said.

One of Healthy Harbor’s goals is to host an annual swimming event starting next year in a designated area where bacteria levels are low enough to be safe. Boston has hosted annual community swimming events in the Charles River since 2013, years after swimming was prohibited because of the health risks posed by pollution and bacterial levels.

“We are definitely looking to emulate that here in Baltimore,” Lindquist said.

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