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Environmentby Peder Schaefer2:48 pmJun 24, 20240

Pressed about jumping into Baltimore Harbor, Mayor Scott and others admit it’s still unsafe and illegal outside of organized events

With water quality better by some measures but still sewage plagued by others, activists caution that Sunday’s Harbor Splash may be taking a victory plunge too soon

Above: Mayor Scott paddles in harbor water to celebrate it “being swimmable most days.” (@MayorBMScott)

Mayor Brandon Scott leapt into the gray-blue water yesterday wearing nothing but a bathing suit. Moments later, 149 others joined him.

To all appearances, on a bright Sunday morning at the Bond Street Wharf in Fells Point, it seemed as if the city was declaring the long-polluted harbor now safe for swimming and encouraging Baltimoreans to enjoy it with no health concerns.

But when pressed, Scott and others painted a different picture, saying it is still illegal to jump into the water off the promenade, that the necessary swim safety infrastructure is still years from being built, and that the water still doesn’t meet Maryland’s water-quality standards a significant percentage of the time.

“We are saying this very clearly and consistently that the only way you should be doing this is in organized events,” said Scott, when asked by The Brew if the Harbor Splash event was sending confusing signals to city residents.

“It’s actually still illegal to jump off the promenade into the water,” said Adam Lindquist, vice president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, who had announced an hour before, “I would like to introduce you to your new fishable and swimmable Baltimore Harbor!”

“We discourage that,” he continued. “We are not telling people to jump in right now wherever they want, when they want.”

“We are saying very clearly the only way you should be doing this is in organized events”  – Brandon Scott.

To David Bramble, swimming in the harbor may not be widely recommended, but is smart public relations and civic cheerleading.

As managing partner of MCB Real Estate, empowered by the Scott administration to demolish and redevelop the city’s Harborplace tourist pavilions, Bramble said clean water is “inextricably connected” to the appeal of his proposed apartment, retail and office complex.

“We’ve planned that ultimately the harbor will be swimmable,” said Bramble, who doubles as a board member at Waterfront Partnership. “The real anchor of our project is the water.”

“It would be good for business, and it would be good for the city,” the Harborplace developer continued. “The key here is to build momentum. We need to let people know that it’s getting cleaner.”

Like Bramble, Andy B. Frank was unconcerned about slipping into the murky water and sanguine about what their group dunk portends for the future.

“I think it’s so significant what we’ve done in 20 years, and remarkable to think about what we can do in the next 20,” said Frank, former vice president of the Baltimore Development Corporation and an ex-deputy mayor.

Harborplace developer David Bramble jumps participates in the Waterfront Partnership's Harbor Splash event. (@MayorBMScott)

Harborplace developer David Bramble (center) participates in the Waterfront Partnership’s Harbor Splash event. In the forefront is City Administrator Faith Leach. (@MayorBMScott)

Bacteria and Pollutants

While the Waterfront Partnership has long hedged its bets, saying that harbor water is not always safe and needs to be managed as a “recreation resource,” the visual of important city and state leaders leaping into the water had the feel of a victory lap.

The triumphant tone isn’t backed up by water quality data and the lack of any swim infrastructure.

There is no doubt that bacteria levels in the Inner Harbor have been reduced. According to Lindquist, who has worked to improve harbor water quality for 14 years, bacteria counts in the water finally began to decrease in 2019.

Enterococcus bacteria is the main concern from a public health standpoint: recreating or boating in waterways with elevated levels carries a higher risk of getting sick from water-borne pathogens.

The Waterfront Partnership’s own data shows that the water still doesn’t meet Maryland’s water quality standards for bacteria during a significant percentage of the time.

Last summer the water didn’t meet safety standards at least 20% of the time at Bond Street Wharf. In July 2023, the water didn’t meet standards 40% of the time.

This year’s water quality report card tells the grim truth about the overall state of Baltimore Harbor (6/16/23)

Statistics from Blue Water Baltimore, another group dedicated to water quality, are even more sobering.

For instance, according to the group’s annual report card, bacteria levels remain high at the Jones Falls Outlet near Pier Six, where that watershed’s flow dumps out into the Inner Harbor.

Samples taken there last year met the standards only 69% of the time – up from the previous year, but still a failing “D” grade.

The overall watershed scored worse, posting a failing “F” grade on the group’s composite eco-score for a host of other parameters that impact aquatic life, including chlorophyll, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Waves of people jump into Baltimore's Harborin Fells Point after the Waterfront Partnership declares it safe to do so. (Peder Schaefer)

Waves of people jump into the harbor on Sunday at an event sponsored by the Waterfront Partnership. (Peder Schaefer)

Weekend Drowning

On Saturday night, a 37-year-old man drowned in the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River on the Baltimore Peninsula, as Port Covington is currently called, at a location listed by police as 2999 Light Street near Ferry Bar.

Police identified the victim as Marquis Whitfield, of the 2400 block of Woodbrook Avenue in West Baltimore.

An officer who responded to the scene assisted two other people who were in the water attempting to help Whitfield.

The victim’s body was eventually located 18 feet below the surface and pulled ashore by members of the dive team, police said. Despite life-saving measures, medics were unable to revive him and Whitfield was pronounced dead on the scene just after 7 p.m.

Asked about the drowning yesterday, Scott called it “very tragic” and said “it really does highlight why we need everyone to be swimming safely.”

Scott called Saturday’s drowning “very tragic” and “why we need everyone to be swimming safely.”

He pointed to the safety precautions taken at the Harbor Splash event, where swimmers wore life jackets and were permitted in the water briefly under careful supervision.

Another restriction: the swim took place in deep water so participants couldn’t touch the historically polluted sediment at the bottom of the harbor.

Lindquist said creating actual swimming areas, complete with lifeguards, is a project years in the future, and that the water quality would have to further improve before that was a realistic option.

“Whether or not one can recreate in an open body of water is always going to be a personal decision, and you’re going to have to do your own assessment of risk,” he explained.

Tracking Participant Health

Alice Volpitta, Blue Water Baltimore’s harbor waterkeeper, says she is glad that Harbor Splash is getting the public to think more about water quality, but worried they’ll get the wrong idea.

Event organizers are correct in saying that water quality is satisfactory if it hasn’t rained recently, she said, because “there’s a better chance that we’re not going to see those wet weather sewage overflows.”

Water quality becomes especially poor after major rainstorms when runoff and sewage overflows pour into the harbor.

But she cautions that sewage overflows can happen rain or shine.

“The notion that as long as it hasn’t rained we’re totally safe doesn’t hold up in an urban ecosystem like the Baltimore Harbor,” Volpitta said.

Asked why the city has not posted warning signs along the Inner Harbor, as Volpitta has suggested, the city health department has not replied.

Officials also have not replied to a question from The Brew based on another suggestion from Volpitta – that health officials track Harbor Splash participants to test whether anyone becomes ill from yesterday’s water exposure.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” she said.

Fern Shen contributed to this story. To reach a reporter: editors@baltimorebrew.com

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