Baltimore will launch an experiment this winter to try to halt a problem that disgusts tourists and drives away residents: the rafts of stomach-turning trash that wash into the harbor during heavy rains.
The city's Department of Public Works plans to spend about $2.5 million installing three sets of trash-collection nets across tributaries to the Gwynns Falls, which dumps pollutants into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.
If the pilot program works, public works officials would like to spend millions more building trash-catchers across the Jones Falls and dozens of other streams that pour storm water into the Inner Harbor, said William Stack, chief of the department's water quality management section.
"It's the city's effort to improve the waters of Baltimore's harbor and the Chesapeake Bay," Stack said. "We're trying to find new technology to deal with the problem of trash in the Inner Harbor."
Officials in New York City and the District of Columbia have reported success after installing similar filtration systems in recent years. Prince George's County is discussing building one on a tributary to the Anacostia River.
Complaints about filth in Baltimore's harbor are as old as the waterfront, which dates back more than 250 years. But the grumbling has gained significance in the years since many local industries died and the city turned to Inner Harbor tourism as a main economic engine.
Every time it rains, water collects litter from streets of the city and suburbs and flushes it through a network of streams and storm-water pipes into the harbor.
To combat the scourge, the city floats booms across the outlets in some places. And five trash-skimming boats do their best to clean up. But both systems are frequently overwhelmed, and the "jewel" of the city is often more like a sewer, critics in the city's business community say.
"You've got a lot of people who will not come to Baltimore because they can't stand all the trash in the water, and that's taking tax dollars out of the city's pocket," said William Flohr, general manager of the Inner Harbor East Marina.
"After a rainstorm, we see all kinds of things floating down here -- picnic tables, dead deer, live beavers, trees, fuel, bottles, billfolds with money still in them, baseballs, footballs. You name it, and it floats by," Flohr said.
Dan Lincoln, spokesman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, praised the city's cleanup project as "priceless" because, he said, 11 million people a year visit the Inner Harbor, pumping $2.9 billion into the local economy.
"The perception of the city is often based on how clean the harbor is, because that's what everyone sees first," Lincoln said. "We don't want 11 million visitors a year to go back home and tell their friends, `Baltimore is one of the trashiest places in the world.' "
The first phase of the city's experiment will be built this winter on the Gwynns Run in a secluded section of Clifton Park.
The city plans to build a trash trap on the shallow, half-mile-long tributary to the Gwynns Falls. It will be triggered when the water is high, said Stack, leader of the project. The trap will divert storm water through a steel rack and six nylon mesh bags, each about 3 feet wide and 8 feet deep.
When the bags fill with litter, a small crane will lift them and throw them into the back of a truck, Stack said. Workers will then replace the bags.
After flowing through the mesh, the water will settle into a manmade wetland of about 4 acres, which Stack said would allow heavy-metal pollutants such as lead and copper to settle to the bottom. A pipe will then guide the water back into the Gwynns Falls and, eventually, to the Middle Branch.
Wearing hip-high boots, Stack led a tour of the stream in Clifton Park last week. The water reeked of human waste, the result of broken sewer pipes upstream.
Stack nearly slipped on the algae of the 6-inch-deep stream, catching himself on the corrugated steel of a large storm-water pipe.
Glass popped underfoot, a ripped shirt drifted by, and plastic bags hung from the branches of trees.
He pointed to the "trash line" in the trees -- about 6 feet above stream level -- and said that showed how much higher the water level is after a storm, when floodwaters carry debris from the streets toward the harbor.
Then Stack gestured to the 4-acre patch of weeds where workers will soon start building the $1.2 million Gwynns Run Pollution Control Facility.
He said the city also plans to build a $350,000 net system upstream, on a tributary to Dead Run in Leakin Park. Miles away, on the east side, the city will construct a $1 million net and pond system east of Herring Run Park on Moores Run, which leads to the Back River.
"The big picture is, we're trying to address the water-quality problem on two levels," Stack said. "We're building the nets to remove trash that flows toward the Chesapeake Bay. And we're building the wetlands to remove some of the heavy-metal contaminants."
After this first phase, the city plans to build three more net systems, at a cost of up to $1 million each, across streams and storm-water outlets leading to the Middle Branch.
If those work, Stack said, he would like to build a trash-net system across the Jones Falls, perhaps beneath the Pratt Street bridge or nearby, before the stream empties into the Inner Harbor.
If the city decides to expand the project to build nets across all storm-water outlets leading into the harbor, it could become expensive, Stack said. The city has 54 such outlets, from Canton to Fort McHenry, and building filters for all of them could cost tens of millions of dollars.
That money would be in addition to the $900 million in unrelated repairs that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is compelling the city to make over the next 14 years to fix its leaky sewer system.
The city decided to test the trash-net project in out-of-the-way areas first, public works spokesman Robert H. Murrow said.