On November 9, 2023, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore was joined by Mayor Brandon Scott and representatives from the Baltimore Department of Public Works and the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, to announce major progress in cleaning, regenerating and revitalization the city’s famous, but long-polluted harbor.
The city has a “swimmable, fishable” goal for the Baltimore Harbor. In 2024, Waterfront Partnership will host Harbor Splash, a public plunge event in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the first public swimming event in Baltimore in over 40 years.
“For more than a decade, the Healthy Harbor Initiative has championed the goal of a swimmable, fishable Baltimore Harbor and we are so thrilled to be at a place today where we can confidently invite the public to swim with us in 2024,” said Adam Lindquist, vice president of Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative.
In support of their plans for a public swim in 2024, a dozen members of the Healthy Harbor Initiative jumped into the Harbor during a “test swim” this past September.
A new documentary shows the test swim and provides an overview of the major restoration milestones that have made the Baltimore Harbor swimmable over the last decade. These include Mr. Trash Wheel, significant sewer upgrades and environmental legislation like the banning of foam containers and plastic bags.
Data from Waterfront Partnership’s 2023 Healthy Harbor Report Card, an annual report that tracks water quality, ecosystem health and restoration impacting Baltimore’s Harbor and streams, supports Waterfront Partnerships plans to hold a public swimming event in 2024.
The full 2023 Healthy Harbor Report Card most notably shared when compared to 2021 water quality monitoring data, 2022 saw average bacteria scores improve across the watershed by 10 points or more. One of the biggest factors for the improvements can be attributed to sewage overflows decreasing by 97% since 2018 because of Baltimore’s investment of $1 billion in sewer infrastructure upgrades.
The report also shows a 60-point improvement at the sampling site nearest the outfall of the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant. Last year, data showed this site only passing 40% of the time and it has returned to a 100% passing rate for 2022, indicating that repairs at the plant are having the desired effect.
Though routine monitoring has found that water in the Harbor meets the Maryland standard for swimming on most dry weather days, as with any large body of open water, there are still important factors like boat traffic, polluted sediment and wet weather to consider.
Due to these concerns, it is recommended that swimming in the Harbor only take place during scheduled events like Harbor Splash.
“The health of Baltimore Harbor is one of the incredible comeback stories in our city’s history,” said Mayor Brandon M. Scott.
“As one of the greatest natural assets anywhere in the world, the health of our harbor was not always a guarantee — but after years of diligent work and dedication to reviving this environmental wonder, we’re seeing the results firsthand. We’re seeing fish, crabs, and wildlife returning to the Inner Harbor and more people than ever taking advantage of the recreation opportunities. Together, we’ll continue building on this progress and remain dedicated to safeguarding harbor health for decades to come,” he added.
In addition to the data collected bi-monthly in 2022 by Blue Water Baltimore for the Healthy Harbor Report Card, Waterfront Partnership took the unprecedented step of sampling five sites around the Baltimore Harbor for fecal bacteria Monday through Friday from April through October 2023.
This provided scientists at University of Maryland’s Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology with an amount of data never before available. Waterfront Partnership then used the Maryland state threshold for swimming beaches to assign grades to sample.
“Waterfront Partnership invested significant resources into monitoring microbes and studying pathogens through our three-year study, and this has given us a lot more certainty of when it is safe to swim in the Harbor. This has been a partnership of researchers and stakeholders working together to solve problems,” said Eric Schott, associate research professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “In September, I did a cannonball into the Harbor and I plan to do it again in 2024.”
Major takeaways from the 2023 data further informed Waterfront Partnership’s decision to hold a 2024 public plunge event. Most notably, failing bacteria scores are almost always associated with rain events and typically clear up within 48 hours. Also, failing bacteria scores not associated with rain events are rare but may be caused by turnover events, a natural process that occurs during extreme shifts in air and water temperatures and does not indicate the presence of sewage.
“Children deserve to be able to play in clean water, in their neighborhood streams and swim in the harbor. To me, it’s really a right that they have,” said Laurie Schwartz, president of Waterfront Partnership. “We’ve been working towards this day for over a decade, and the work and partnership of so many, including the nonprofits, educational institutions, government officials, and business leaders, that came together to support the Healthy Harbor Initiative, can really be celebrated today.”
“We got it done. This is a success story for Baltimore. We’ve gone from ‘can’t touch the water’ to ‘most days it is swimmable and fishable’,” said Michael Hankin, chairman of Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative and president and CEO of Brown Advisory. “We had an ambitious goal and with a lot of hard work and people believing we could it, we are finally realizing our vision.”
The Harbor Splash plunge event will be open to anyone at least 18 years old who registers and Waterfront Partnership expects the first swim to be limited in size and scope.
“But this is just the beginning,” continued Lindquist. “We want to see other events in the Harbor like triathlons, a swim across the Harbor and stand-up paddleboard races.”
The Healthy Harbor Initiative provides a roadmap for cleaning up Baltimore’s Harbor and the waterways leading to the Harbor. A clean Harbor and clean streams will provide opportunities for residents and area families to enjoy clean water in their neighborhoods. Greener and cleaner neighborhoods will make Baltimore City and Baltimore County more livable for all local residents.
The mission of the Waterfront Partnership is to create a clean, green, safe, sustainable and thriving urban waterfront for all to enjoy, in collaboration with local government, business, and community partners. They are the hosts who greet visitors, the creators of programs and promotions and managers of parks. They encourage investment in Baltimore’s most celebrated asset so it can continue to grow, to serve as a place of pride and the place where Baltimoreans come together to recreate and to celebrate.
Photo of “test swim” courtesy of Waterfront Partnership.