The outer reaches of Baltimore’s harbor were somewhat safer to swim in last year, but water quality overall in the harbor and the streams that feed into it continues to post failing or near-failing grades, according to the latest annual assessment.

The Healthy Harbor campaign's report card for 2016 found that fecal bacteria levels indicative of the presence of raw sewage were low enough in the Patapsco River off Fort McHenry to be safe for swimming nearly 90 percent of the time, and 70 percent of the time along the popular Canton waterfront, based on federal criteria. That’s an improvement over the 2015 report card, which found no place in the harbor met the safe swimming standard even 60 percent of the time.

Adam Lindquist, director of the Healthy Harbor campaign, which wants a swimmable harbor by 2020, called that a “huge improvement” in the harbor’s suitability for recreation. Some of the gain likely is weather-related, he said, because there was less rainfall in 2016 to cause sewage overflows and wash pollution off city streets.  But Lindquist noted that the city and environmental nonprofits like Blue Water Baltimore have been working to fix overflows and reduce stormwater runoff.

Still, bacteria levels in the streams feeding into the harbor – Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls – exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency safe swimming levels 80 to 100 percent of the time in all but a couple spots, where the water was unsafe 60 percent of the time, according to the report card.

The Healthy Harbor campaign was launched in 2010 by the Waterfront Partnership, a business group that has enlisted area businesses, nonprofits and local and state government in the cleanup effort. Its overall goal includes making the harbor fishable as well as swimmable by 2020 -- though that's more about making the water more hospitable to fish than about cleaning up the lingering toxic contaminants in harbor sediments that make some locally caught fish unsafe for regular consumption.

Though there are no designated swimming beaches around the harbor, it’s a major tourist and recreation magnet, with city recreation officials estimating some 10,000 paddling trips on the water annually, according to Lindquist.

“Hey, people are using this waterway,” he said, “and that’s why it’s so important that we restore and clean it up.” Those plying the waters of the harbor and its watershed risk contracting gastrointestinal illness from contact with sewage-fouled water, but Lindquist suggested the growing aquatic activity is helping to drive the cleanup. “Unloved and unused waterways are not the waterways that get restored.”

Other measures of water quality gauging the harbor’s ecological health for fish and other aquatic creatures remained poor, earning the harbor an overall failing F grade and the streams a D-minus. Those were the same letter grades given in the 2015 report card, with the individual scores for the harbor and its feeder streams varying by only a couple points better or worse. 

“Both the harbor and streams are doing pretty much the same,” Lindquist said.  He noted that last year actually saw improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, reducing the intensity of algae blooms and improving oxygen levels in the water that fish need to survive. But offsetting that, samples routinely found high conductivity levels, indicative of chloride and metal concentrations in the water that could be harmful to fish.

“A major source of that pollutant is the road salting that goes on in the winter,” he said.

As for more visible pollution, Mr. Trash Wheel, the googly-eyed floating garbage collector at the mouth of the Jones Falls, didn’t have to work as hard to keep unsightly flotsam out of the Inner Harbor. The device scooped up 163 tons of trash last year, compared with 239 tons in 2015. As with the better bacteria readings, Lindquist said lighter rainfall last year might have meant less trash washed into the harbor, but it could mean some of the cleanup efforts are working.

Baltimore city and Baltimore County are under orders from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment to reduce the amount of trash washing into the harbor from streams and storm drains. The city has responded by issuing every household new trash bins and sweeping streets more regularly, but the trash wheels have been the most visible and popular component of the anti-litter effort.

A second collector, dubbed Professor Trash Wheel, has been placed in Canton at the storm drain outfall that used to be Harris Creek; it’s kept 9 tons of trash out of the harbor since it began operations in December.  Fund-raising to build a third trash collector for the Gwynns Falls is under way. 

Meanwhile, Baltimore city has spent upwards of $1 billion on sewer repairs under a consent decree signed in 2002 with the EPA and MDE to halt chronic sewage overflows. The city failed to complete the work by the January 2016 deadline, so last June federal and state regulators proposed to give the city another 14 ½ years to complete the overhaul, at a cost of hundreds of millions more dollars. The new consent decree drew intense criticism from some residents and environmental groups, and has yet to be finalized.

As bad as the overflows are, Lindquist said, the myriad cracks and leaks in the region’s aging infrastructure are just as problematic, and harder to fix. Illegal sewer hookups to storm drains also are an issue, Lindquist added, noting that public works crews last year discovered a cross-connection for an entire apartment complex.

Even so, Lindquist said he’s hopeful that the city will get its sewage problems under control enough by the end of 2020 for the Healthy Harbor campaign to be within sight of its swimmability goal, at least in some places. That’s when the city has pledged to complete an overhaul of the sewage pumping and storage capacity at its Back River treatment plant, which should halt most of the routine overflows into the Jones Falls whenever it rains hard.

“I don’t think it’s going to be swimmable every day of the year,” Lindquist concluded, adding he doubts that’s possible in any urban water way. “But we want to get to the point that’s its swimmable a reasonable period of time.”