Earlier this month, Gov. Martin O’Malley led a group of 80 Marylanders — businesspeople, environmental leaders and engineers — on a week-long tour of Brazil. They made stops in Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and had some free time to check out Rio’s famous Copacabana.
But this trip was no vacation. Maryland is helping Brazil prepare for two huge events — the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. And in addition to building stadiums, fixing roads, improving public transportation and constructing an Olympic Village, Brazil has a huge problem: One very polluted waterway, Guanabara Bay.
Guanabara Bay is on the southwest side of Rio. Where the ocean side of the city is famous for beautiful beaches, like Copacabana and Ipanema, the bay side is mostly known for its stench. Nearly 80 percent of the human waste that ends up in the Bay has no treatment at all.
It may make for a memorable Olympics, but not necessarily the kinds of memories the Brazilian hosts were going for.
“I’ve been sailing all over the world for 20 years now, and this is the most polluted place I’ve ever been,” Allan Norregaard, a Danish bronze medalist in the 2012 London Olympics told the Associated Press last week, when Maryland’s delegation was still in town. “It’s really a shame because it’s a beautiful area and city, but the water is so polluted, so dirty and full of garbage.”
Maryland and Rio have a state relationship, sort of like a sister-city one, and the Brazilians have been trying to learn about the successes the state has had in cleaning up the Chesapeake.
In the fall, a delegation of government officials came to Maryland to learn about cleanup efforts. As part of the trip, the Brazilians wanted to learn about communication — how they could engage the population in the cleanup. I had the honor of speaking to them and telling them about some of the work we do. I shared the panel space with communications officers from the Maryland Department of the Environment, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Bay Program. They seemed impressed about what we had done here, though I know all of us feel there is a long way to go in terms of engaging the public.
When it was Maryland’s turn to visit Brazil, the Bay Journal wasn’t invited (sigh). But it sounds like they got the right people on the trip.
Robert Summers, a water engineer who runs the Maryland Department of the Environment, talked to the Brazilians about how we upgraded our sewage-treatment plants. Frank Dawson, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, discussed protecting the things we treasure. And Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland, discussed involving the researchers in Rio in more robust water monitoring programs, a greater advisory role to the government and even some exchange programs with our universities here.
For Boesch, a man who travels a fair amount, the trip was a “real eye opener.” From his hotel at Copacabana, he was able to watch a big rain storm. A canyon through the sand carried stormwater runoff right into the waterways.
As an emerging power, Boesch said, Brazil has “enormous responsibility for what’s going to happen in the world,” and can be a model to the world on how to clean up their bay. It is likely members of the Maryland delegation will return to Brazil individually, and that the communication will keep coming as they get closer to the sporting events.
In some ways, he said, the Rio cleanup task is easier than the one facing the Chesapeake 30 years ago. Guenabara Bay is only 19 miles long and 18 miles wide. Its problem is largely a point-source one — sewage. It doesn’t have to deal with the Chesapeake’s six-state-and-the-district issue, or its agriculture issues. But, Boesch said, many of the areas are so poor they have no infrastructure at all. It’s hard to implement something like a flush fee if people have no fixed residence and no money to pay it.
It’s easy to become somewhat depressed about the Chesapeake and its prospects. But after speaking to the Brazilians during their trip here, I felt pretty good about what the Chesapeake has accomplished. I guess being a Baltimore resident, I felt especially pleased about the work the Waterfront Partnership has undertaken to clean the water in my city. We spoke to the delegation at the Columbus Center on a day when the harbor looked especially pretty.
I was wondering if Boesch felt the same way, that every once in awhile it’s good to be reminded you’re ahead of the curve instead of running to catch up.
Boesch didn’t quite agree.
“We have a very fortunate situation here, that we’ve been allowed to do this, to work together. But we really have to do better,” he said. “Because if we, in the Chesapeake Bay, cannot achieve these things, it’s unlikely anyone else will, either.”