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The Inner Harbor: Going from Bio-don't to Bio-do

The Healthy Harbor Initiative project
The Healthy Harbor Initiative project

It's been nearly 30 years since The Rouse Company transformed the Inner Harbor from a ho-hum municipal park into a leading example of urban waterfront redevelopment that attracts scads of tourists and visitors to the city each year. They come for the Maryland Science Center, the National Aquarium, Pier 6, and, of course, Harborplace. Not on their list of must-see attractions? The waters of the Inner Harbor.

An environmental nightmare, the resource that puts the "harbor" in the Inner Harbor is fit for neither man nor fish. Riddled with bacteria as a result of litter and run-off from the Greater Baltimore watershed, health officials have warned fisherman and swimmers to avoid the area for decades.

A new initiative aims to turn the waters of the Inner Harbor from a biohazard into a resource perfect for swimming and fishing. Brainchild of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, the Healthy Harbor Strategy, announced last week, would clean the water in just 10 years, says Michael Hankin, president and CEO, Brown Advisory and Chair, Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.

"We have to be very honest with ourselves; everything we've done is looking towards the land with the water to our backs. It's the big elephant in the room because we know the water is there yet we haven't been able to deal with it. Well it's time for us to deal with one of our biggest challenges that could also be one of our biggest opportunities," he says.

House cleaning

The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore plans to walk the walk with the initiative. The organization says it will "lead by example" by continuing to alter its practices to be more environmentally friendly and by implementing projects to affect water quality and help educate the public about the Harbor's health. The Waterfront Partnership hopes to encourage the public and like-minded organizations to adopt cleaner, greener practices and to use the harbor for environmental education projects and activities.

Created in 2005, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore initially focused on establishing services that would help maintain the waterfront area by sweeping and power washing the harbor area, adding new plants, landscaping and mowing, as well as improving safety and upping the friendly factor with hospitality guides.

With their mission well in hand, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore turned its attention to the environment around the same time the city began work on its sustainability plan.

"We recognized all along the precious resource we were stewards of and that we really needed to take steps ourselves to make sure we were treating this resource more lovingly, and that the chemicals we use, the plantings we install, the fuel that we burn could either damage the environment or contribute to its sustainability," says Laurie Schwartz, executive director.

About a year ago, the organization began making key changes. The vehicles used by landscapers no longer burn fossil fuels, instead now they are powered by electricity. Chemicals used for power washing are now more environmentally-friendly. Turf areas have been replaced with native plantings and an increasing number of trees are being added each year to boost the city's tree canopy.

"We first took a look inward, and that process continues, changing our own practices. This year we're cutting back the amount of fertilizer we use by 50 percent and our goal next year is to cut it out completely," Schwartz explains.

The plan

The multi-pronged initiative includes several projects that will begin immediately.

Using public and private funds, the Waterfront Parntership plans to begin installing a series of floating islands in the harbor in front of the World Trade Center. The floating islands will act as wetlands to provide a refuge for fish seeking oxygen in the water that will help to revive it � "fish life" instead of "fish kill".

At about 200 square feet, the initial installation of the floating islands will serve as a trial run, enabling researchers to test out their design and its durability. Adding the wetlands is a key component because without them nature has no way of filtering out many of the pollutants poisoning the Inner Harbor.

"It's a good idea to take the first year to understand the maintenance, understand how they hold up, and to get some sense of their performance. But, the general idea is to recreate the wetlands that surrounded the harbor when the first colonists landed here," says Chris Streb, an ecological engineer with Biohabitats, who helped design the floating wetlands.

Another project will create a sustainable Harbor environment by re-using resources: using compost created at the National Aquarium to add nutrients to the landscape and use the rain water captured by cisterns at area buildings for watering plants and foliage in the Inner Harbor.

The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore will also launch a "one rainfall away" campaign to educate people about the direct connection between the litter on the ground and debris in our streams and Harbor. The first phase of the campaign will focus on encouraging smokers to dispose of their cigarette butts in urns installed around the perimeter of the Waterfront, instead of dropping them on the ground, where they are just "one rainfall away" from ending up in neighborhood streams or the Harbor.

In addition, the dramatic reduction of fertilizer use when tending to trees and plantings will eliminate a major source of Harbor pollution and show that public lawns can be kept green without the use of fertilizer.

Everyone plays a part

According to Schwartz, the initiative is attainable, in particular if people who live along the watersheds that feed into the Inner Harbor make a few changes as well.

Ideally, says Streb, the goal is to address the problem in a comprehensive way. "The harbor waterfront only controls one-one thousandth of the entire watershed area that includes the Jones Falls and is about 130,000 acres. To make some kind of measurable impact we need to educate government and private citizens and business owners around the watershed."

The organization recommends that area residents and business owners in Baltimore City and northern Baltimore County try to cut back on run-off and litter that flow into storm drains. Picking up trash and recycling will help reduce the amount of trash that flows into the Harbor.

Planting gardens filled with native plants can help reduce the amount of run-off during rainy periods and limit the amount of chemicals that wind up in the harbor because plants absorb much more water than grass.

Cleaning up after our pets is also key, in particular in backyards that are little more than concrete slabs. Leaving waste to wash down storm drains introduces bacteria such as e-coli into the water, making it unhealthy for both fishing and swimming.

"If we could put a man on the moon in 10 years, then we can clean the water in the Inner Harbor. We just need to do it together," says Streb.

Walaika Haskins is managing editor of Bmore Media.

Photo Captions:

1. Simulation of replacing unused turf grass behind the Visitor Center with native plants to lower energy used for mowing and water used for irrigation while providing native habitat and educational opportunities.
2. Simulation of floating wetlands along the edge of existing bulk heads around the Harbor.
3. Rendering of the underside of the floating wetlands in front of the World Trade Center. The rootzone of the wetland vegetation would provide aquatic habitat.
4. Simulation of floating wetland in unused security area in front of the World Trade Center

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