It is a great notion — cleaning up the rivers that flow through the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin. Ambitious volunteers, led by a schoolteacher named Brian Schilpp, already have pulled tons of trash and tires out of Back River, long used as a dumping ground for people on the southeast side of the city and Baltimore County. And now, on the other side of town, we'll soon see a new effort to turn the polluted, heavy-metal Patapsco into a clean and swimmable waterway, from its headwaters to the Baltimore harbor.
These projects present the kind of huge challenge Americans like and need. They prompt new leaders to step forward. They build communities of diverse people, urban and suburban, working toward the same goal, and they provide a big payoff for the entire region.
I say to all my readers today: If you want to throw in with an effort of high value, that will provide a benefit not only for the Chesapeake but for your homes and businesses, consider getting behind these Baltimore river restoration efforts with me.
You might already be involved in "people things," mentoring or coaching children, volunteering at a nonprofit that helps people in need. You might see river restoration as one of those feel-good "environmental things" that crunchy people undertake to no long-lasting effect. You might consider the waters around here to be such a mess that there's no hope. Or, if you don't have waterfront property, you might wonder, "What's in it for me?"
But if you live in this region, the payoff can be huge, and it will ripple back from the waterfront all the way to homes in the surrounding counties.
If citizens clean up these rivers and take up their defense, they become healthy. They become destinations. In time, public confidence in them builds. The waters clear up. You can consume the fish and crabs in them without fear of getting cancer. Michael Phelps can lead swimmers into them. Post-industrial Baltimore takes on a whole new atmosphere; the Chesapeake Bay gets billions of gallons of benefit.
Sounds crazy, no?
But it can happen. It happened in Boston, with the Charles River going from a thing of derision in a 1960s song by the Standells ("Dirty Water") to the centerpiece of urban recreation (including swimming races).
It can happen here.
Consider Back River. In just two years, some 375,000 pounds of trash and 2,525 tires have been hauled out by volunteers and staff of the Back River Restoration Committee. This is hands-on, mucky work, and Mr. Schilpp, the teacher who has been serving as project manager, says those who get into Back River are already seeing a big difference in water quality, marine life (an otter was spotted in the river this spring) and in the appeal of waterfront vistas that had been marred by trash. Though there are still loathsome sluggards who litter the waters and shores of Back River, Mr. Schilpp believes that public respect for the waterway has grown because of the high visibility of the cleanup effort.
But it's one thing to remove all the junk — lots of old Hot Wheels, car parts, shopping carts, construction material, plastic bottles — in the tidal area of Back River. It's quite another to get people upstream to recognize their connection to it. The watershed includes 73 square miles of streams. If you live in Rosedale, Overlea, Parkville, Stoneleigh, Loch Raven Village or Essex, you're connected by them to Back River. If you live near Herring Run, Red Run and Stemmers and just raise your consciousness of them, even a little, you're taking part in the restoration. (You can get started by helping catch storm water at your house so that it doesn't gush into nearby streams. Check out the Back River Restoration Committee's rain barrel effort on its website: http://www.savebackriver.org)
On the other side of Baltimore two weeks ago, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin held a news conference in Middle Branch Park to announce a new initiative to clean up the Patapsco, one of seven urban rivers across the nation that will get some serious attention in the next few years. "Urban waters across our nation are brimming with potential," Ms. Jackson said.
What the Patapsco needs now is local leadership, like Blue Water Baltimore (www.bluewaterbaltimore.org), to build the community of volunteers and sponsors to clean, protect and love the river. It's a great notion, but now we need a plan of action in the Brian Schilpp/Back River model — not more bureaucracy — and as soon as there is one, and a way for you to get involved, I'll let you know.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is email@example.com.