The day couldn't have been nicer. Gauzy clouds dotted an otherwise crisp blue sky. Just a wisp of a breeze and a gentle late-summer sun rounded things out.
The water of the Inner Harbor, however, was anything but. Empty soda bottles bobbed and snack bags undulated with the tide as a ribbon of oil tied the entire trashy necklace together. Discarded lures, cigarette butts and webs of monofilament fishing line hugged the shore.
And this, Eliza Steinmeier insisted, was a good day. No fish kills and no recent downpours flushing trash from city streets and gutters.
Steinmeier, a Baltimore native, is executive director of Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, one of nine watchdog groups around Maryland that monitor water quality in rivers and streams. On many days, she prowls the harbor and Patapsco River tributaries in a 16-foot boat, looking for sewage spills, storm water and construction runoff, and industrial pollution.
As a tourist destination, the Inner Harbor is a cash machine. Say you're from Baltimore, and folks in other states mention the harbor and crabs in the same breath.
Unfortunately, the crab population ain't what it used to be and the murky harbor would never be a contender for the title "Tidy Bowl."
And the truth is, the city has done a bangup job of walling off the water with high-priced condos and office towers. As claustrophobic as it feels to drive down the concrete canyon that is Key Highway, the view from the water makes Baltimore look like Legos on steroids.
"The city has underutilized the water because it's been so dirty for so long," Steinmeier says. "As long as people just look at it while having a beer instead of using it for recreation, things will remain that way."
A lawyer and a former environmental studies teacher, Steinmeier prefers persuasion and educating the public and public officials to tangling in a courtroom. But her group is not afraid of a fight.
"We don't want to sue anybody because it's expensive," says T.J. Mullen, who sits on the Waterkeeper board of directors. "But we will if we have to. One of the reasons for patrolling is visibility. We want polluters to know that we see it and that we care."
The nonprofit Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper was founded in fall 2006 after the Patapsco Riverkeeper effort collapsed. It's part of Waterkeeper Alliance, a national coalition of more than 180 local groups spearheaded by Robert Kennedy Jr. In Maryland, clean-water advocates keep tabs on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean coastline along with six rivers, from the Sassafras and Chester on the Eastern Shore to the Patuxent and Severn south of Baltimore.
The groups fill a niche.
"There are lots of water organizations in Baltimore, but there was nobody doing strictly enforcement," Steinmeier says. "To me, enforcement is just a piece, but it's a critical piece."
In addition to making her own observations, Steinmeier also checks out tips from the public (410-366-3038 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
As we motored around the Inner Harbor and up Middle Branch, Steinmeier noted potential problems. A dirt pile on a construction site next to the water wasn't covered and showed signs of runoff. Bubbles rose to the surface near the Korean War Memorial, and the smell of sewage hung in the air. A patch of clear water on our way under the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge was litter-covered 20 minutes later - a sure sign of dumped garbage.
When they see anglers working the shoreline at Middle Branch Park, Steinmeier and Mullen shake their heads.
"It's a Catch-22. You want to bring people back to the water to appreciate it and become advocates, but you don't want them to come in contact with it because it's unsafe," Steinmeier says. "Every day, hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage flow into the harbor. Anglers touch the water and handle fish and then grab a sandwich. That's really dangerous."
Yet, there's no denying the temptation to rig a rod when you look at a fish finder and see large images - striped bass, probably 3 feet long - stacked on the edge of the channel. Or you glance over the gunwale and see huge, boiling bait balls of menhaden frantically circling near the Baltimore Marine Center gas pumps.
"The harbor should be a great place for light-tackle fishing. As we clean up the water, we can give it back to the anglers," says Mullen, an avid angler who lives along Middle River and loves wetting a line off Hart-Miller Island.
But getting there is a struggle. If it's not marine dumping, it's a construction crew washing off cement trucks by the water or someone pumping standing water from a building site into the harbor. Last month, a moron broke into the Pompeian Olive Oil Co. on Pulaski Highway and opened a valve on a tank filled with nearly 6,000 gallons of olive oil. The oil leaked into the harbor near Boston and Linwood streets in Canton.
It's enough to turn Oprah into a pessimist.
To keep the keeper afloat, the Baltimore harbor group is having its first "Trash Bash" from 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 18 at Nick's Fish House on the banks of Middle Branch. Tickets are $50 each, which covers food, drink and entertainment by Captain Quint, a local band. You can learn more by visiting www.baltimorewaterkeeper.org.
Steinmeier hopes to pass along a cleaner harbor to her son, born last summer.
"I want my son to be able to come down here with a fishing pole or take his friends and go swimming and enjoy this river that is in his back yard," she says. "It's a long tunnel, but I think there's a light at the end of it. I wouldn't do this job if I didn't think there would be success at the end of the day."