Every other week, Tina Meyers and her crew check 17 spots in the… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
Boaters, anglers and anyone bold enough to swim in Baltimore's troubled harbor will soon be able to get timely information about whether they're risking an upset stomach or infection from splashing in water fouled with sewage leaks and other pollution.
Starting this month, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, Tina Meyers, plans to post results online every other week from regular sampling cruises she's making to check conditions in the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. They'll be shown on an online map of the harbor with red, yellow and green dots indicating the level of health risk detected most recently at that spot.
The aim, said Meyers, is "so that people can make educated decisions about their recreational use of the water."
Testing done in prior years suggests the open water around Fort McHenry and in parts of the Middle Branch is often safe for human contact — though not after heavy rains, when sewage, pet waste and other pollution wash into the harbor.
But in much of the Inner Harbor and off Fells Point and Canton, levels of disease-causing bacteria have routinely been so high that people risked a stomachache, diarrhea or worse if they went in the water or even splashed it in their faces or on cuts in their skin.
"You still see folks out there fishing or crabbing," she said, either in boats or from the shore at places like Ferry Bar Park or Middle Branch Park in South Baltimore. Knowing what she does, Meyers said, she usually wears gloves when she's on the water.
To give the public more up-to-date information, Meyers began making weekly sampling cruises last week with a crew drawn from Blue Water Baltimore, the nonprofit environmental group with which the Harbor Waterkeeper is affiliated. Every other week, she and her crew check 17 spots in the Inner Harbor and 13 in the Middle Branch.
The samples are analyzed at the state health department laboratory for enterococci bacteria, which are indicators of the presence of human or animal waste. Results are to be provided within 24 hours, and will be posted on an online map of the harbor maintained by Blue Water Baltimore at bacteria.bluewaterbaltimore.org/home.
Red spots on the map indicate the most recent sample had bacteria levels higher than the state deems safe for even a one-time or occasional dip in the water. Yellow spots mark places where bacteria are below that level but higher than what's considered safe for regular swimming. Green spots had relatively low bacteria levels below all government water-quality thresholds.
The harbor bacteria map is the first major project for Meyers, who took over last month as the Harbor Waterkeeper. The harbor's first keeper, Eliza Smith Steinmeier, stepped down after five years to focus on her family.
Meyers is a native of Buffalo, N.Y., who grew up boating, swimming and skiing on Lake Erie. She's an environmental attorney who before this had worked for the University of Maryland School of Lawl's environmental law clinic.
On Wednesday, she went out to check the Middle Branch with David Flores, Blue Water's water quality manager, and Debra Lenik, the group's volunteer coordinator. They anchored the Waterkeeper's 16-foot C-Dory off the trash-strewn shore by the Baltimore Rowing Club, and Meyers repeatedly dipped plastic bottles into the water as a few scullers and boaters glided by. She also dipped a black-and-white Secchi disk down to measure the water's clarity.
Besides bacteria, the crew gathered samples to test for chlorophyll, an indicator of algae, and to check nitrogen and phosphorus levels. Those nutrients, from sewage discharges and from pet waste and fertilizer washing off streets and lawns, feed the algae growth and can kill fish and crabs by robbing the water of the dissolved oxygen they need to survive.
It's painstaking work, but Meyers said it has to be because the group plans to submit the data to government agencies drawing up a bacteria "pollution diet" for the harbor.
Earlier sampling had demonstrated that bacteria levels are severe enough in the harbor that the Maryland Department of the Environment decided the city and Baltimore County must reduce them to protect the public. The county was included because the harbor's two main tributaries, the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, drain land well beyond the city line.
It's too early to tell if the water quality has worsened or improved since earlier samplings, Flores said. Bacteria counts taken last year were slightly better overall than in 2009, he said, but that could be because the weather was drier in 2011, with less rain to wash pollution into the harbor.
Meyers said that tracking nutrient levels in the harbor also should help the public tell if efforts to reduce nutrient pollution in the broader Chesapeake Bay, mandated under a different federally imposed "pollution diet," are succeeding.
"My job is ensuring that all those well-intentioned plans are actually occurring and we're seeing improvements," she said.