City's hopes sink in troubled waters

This Just In...

April 16, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

BALTIMORE'S waterfront is wonderful, and next week we're having another festival to celebrate it. From Canton to Middle Branch, real estate developers have big plans to transform what remains of the city's old, creosoted ramparts into fabulous destinations. Tourists flock to the Inner Harbor. Yuppies and well-heeled empty-nesters want to live near it, or high above it, or at least within view of it. Boat bums want to crib there.

Where is Cirque du Soleil currently playing? On the waterfront.

If any part of Baltimore can be said to be "hot" in the sense of a trend, it's the waterfront. It's our major attraction, our finest amenity. The future of the city - more businesses, more conventioneers, more tax-paying homeowners - rests in the city's proximity to the water. Since Harborplace opened, that's what we've been selling - an accessible, postindustrial waterfront connected to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic beyond.

It's historic.

It's romantic.

And it's still pretty messed up.

Here's the latest news: A Johns Hopkins study says you probably shouldn't even touch any fish coming out of it, they're so infected with parasites and bacteria.

FOR THE RECORD - PLEASE READ MEMO.

I feel like the guy who points out a cockroach at a fine restaurant when everyone else seems to be having a good time.

But there it is. C'est la blatte!

Look, I love the waterfront. I did some fishing in March in Middle Branch, near the Hanover Street bridge and Harbor Hospital, with an experienced bass fisherman from Carroll County, Gary Peters. Except for the occasional floating plastic bottle, the water seemed downright clean and alive. It was full of gizzard shad, and we caught a few nice-size rockfish (though they were smaller than the monsters Gary had hooked in the same area in January). As we moved around on Gary's boat, he pointed out the place where the Maryland Science Center plans to build another facility, and we cruised past the Baltimore Yacht Basin, due for serious overhaul this summer.

It all seemed pretty nice - urban fishing just a few minutes from downtown Baltimore - until Gary's fishing hole showed up this week as a place where Hopkins researchers found infected fish.

Next time, I wear latex.

All these years we've lived in denial about the water. Really, you don't want to think about it too much. Over the years, we've hung around Fells Point, tripped in and out of Locust Point, walked the promenade along Canton, looked down on the water from Federal Hill, taken boats out of the Inner Harbor, taken boats into the Inner Harbor, admired tall ships and Whitbread racers - and only occasionally allowed ourselves to wonder how rotten these waters can be.

Of course, if you go by what environmental scientists say about Le Port du Baltimore, it's pretty rotten.

Let me put a dollar figure on it - close to a billion dollars in sewer repairs rotten.

For too many years, Baltimore danced with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department over chronic problems with its sewage system. The city finally agreed to make $900 million in repairs over the next 13 years. Of course, our water bills are going up to pay for this, but the increases are way overdue.

Meanwhile, the city's old system continues to bleed. Some 35 millions gallons of sewage flowed into poor little Herring Run just this winter.

Not that the city is the only culprit. Water quality from the Inner Harbor to deep in the Chesapeake remains poor because of the remnants of industrial pollution and the drainage of chemicals from the farms and lawns of this overdeveloped metropolitan area into the little creeks and large rivers that flow to the bay. Twenty years after state and federal officials pledged an all-out effort to revive the bay, the crusade is fatigued and, worse, in retreat. The White House wants to relax water-quality standards at a time when they should be strengthened.

So, enjoy the waterfront festival, enjoy Cirque du Soleil. Just take this thought along: Those who make money from the waterfront - through real estate, boat sales, fishing, tourism - and those who just love the view should give their money and their voices to efforts to make the troubled waters about us cleaner and safer. Otherwise, we're just building castles on mud.

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