They came by canoe, kayak, dragon boat, even paddleboard. More than 250 people paddled from different parts of Baltimore to meet in the Inner Harbor and rally for clean water.
“Fix the pipes, fix the pipes,” they chanted. Drones circled overhead to photograph the same message, spelled out in a floating sign in front of the Maryland Science Center.
The “floatilla,” as it was called, was put on by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit group that includes business leaders, city officials and environmental activists. Its Healthy Harbor Initiative has been campaigning for the past six years to clean up the harbor, which it calls the city’s most valuable asset.
Though ringed with restaurants and tourist attractions, the Inner Harbor can be a depository of all the detritus from the city and Baltimore County upstream, including stormwater, sewage, trash and all manner of debris.
The group has been issuing report cards on the harbor’s ecological health since 2012. Though its grade is still failing, its F score this year is edging ever closer to a D-minus. That might not sound like a huge success, but floatilla organizers noted that the city’s former public works director once told the partnership’s chairman, Michael Hankin, that no one would ever want to swim or fish in the harbor. Now, Hankin, president and CEO of an investment firm with offices in Fells Point, vows that he’ll be first in the water. He hopes it will happen in 2020 – the target date set by the harbor cleanup initiative
The rally comes shortly after federal and state regulators gave Baltimore another 14 and 1/2 years to fix chronic sewage overflows and leaks that have fouled the harbor, making swimming impossible and kayaking sometimes unpleasant. The new proposed consent decree modifies a court-approved cleanup plan agreed to in 2002, which didn’t end the overflows. (The Bay Journal’s Tim Wheeler outlines the problem here.)
Both Hankin and Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, urged the paddlers to keep up the fight for clean water. Baker specifically suggested going online and commenting on the consent order. Commenters can send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org; or mail letters to the, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. DOJ – ENRD, P.O. Box 7611, Washington, D.C. 20044-7611.
Neither speaker criticized the city for the faulty pipes. But Blue Water Baltimore, the local watershed advocacy group, has done so -- both through legal action and in the media. It did not have a spot on the podium.
Halle Van der Gaag, Blue Water Baltimore’s executive director, said she was excited so many people came down to the harbor and participated. But she said her group was “in the verify” mode over the sewage overflow extension, scrutinizing the details of the 91-page proposed cleanup agreement.
‘We’re trying to understand if they couldn’t get it done before -- what’s different, what’s changed,” she said. “We’re committed to a thorough evaluation. We’re not there yet in terms of what we’re actually going to do.”
The mood was more jubilant out on the water. Many groups made a day of it, including Outdoor Afro, a group working to connect and engage African-Americans in nature, with chapters in 28 states.
“We’re all people who believe in supporting the environment,” said Ronda Chapman, who lives in Washington, D.C., where she works for the District Department of Energy and the Environment.
Chapman, who said she works often in the Anacostia, remarked that the harbor water seemed relatively clean and free of debris. The latter condition could be credited to “Mr. Trash Wheel,” a floating trash collector that has removed an estimated 420 tons of litter since its installation in 2014. Outfitted with googly eyes that make it look like a cartoon character, the trash collector has generated widespread publicity, stoked in part by its running Twitter feed, @MrTrashWheel.
Hopkins student Veronica Reardon, 21, paddled her canoe about 2 miles from south Baltimore to participate in the floatilla. A Kansas City native, she said, she doesn’t see this kind of momentum at home.
“I feel like Baltimore has a really good chance of cleaning things up,” she said. “It’s a motivated city. We (back home) are not a motivated city. This harbor is getting better.”