The Way to a Swimmable Harbor

Tackling trash at the source in Baltimore

All photos: Water Partnership of Baltimore
Mr. Trash Wheel leads mariners from the community advocating for water quality.

Nearly every workday for 20 years, John Kellett parked his car along Pratt Street and walked across the downtown pedestrian bridge over the Jones Falls River toward his office aboard a vintage Coast Guard vessel. The USCGC Taney, permanently moored at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, was the headquarters of the Baltimore Maritime Museum, and Kellett was its director. From there he often contemplated the turnaround Baltimore’s Inner Harbor had experienced over recent decades and what he could do to make it better. Transformed since the 1970s from a post-industrial wasteland of abandoned piers, derelict docksides, and warehouses into a bustling tourist attraction and a hub for downtown revitalization, the Inner Harbor boasts almost every kind of craft, from luxury yachts to pedal-powered paddleboats. In addition to hosting globetrotting tall ship flotillas, holiday fireworks, and thousands of seasonal visitors, it supports the Maryland Science Center, the Museum of Industry, the National Aquarium, and dozens of popular shops and restaurants. However, for all the progress the harbor had made, Kellett sadly noted that on a routine basis, especially after heavy rain, he would overhear tourists commenting on how the dirty water looked. He felt the problem of trash in the harbor was detracting from its image as a destination, and trash flowed into the harbor from the Jones Falls River nonstop.

Adam Lindquist is director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative for the Waterfront Partnership. He identifies his organization’s mission as making sure the area surrounding the harbor is “clean, family friendly, and accessible” to the people of Baltimore. He remembers, “When it would rain, the harbor would be covered with so much trash that it looked like you could walk across.”

Kellett says, “It got so bad that I called the city and said, ‘We really need to do something about how the trash is ruining the image of our beautiful harbor.’ They said, ‘We’re open to ideas.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll come up with one.’

“Every day, I’d think about it on the way to work: How can we stop this trash that’s coming down the river from becoming a serious liability to the enjoyment people have of the harbor? It occurred to me one day that we could use the water current that brings the trash to help remove the trash.”

Kellett mused that the Jones Falls River that pumped so much trash into the harbor was once, in the distant past, home to an industrial powerhouse fueled by water power, and that water wheels—the same technology that took Baltimore to the top as a manufacturing center—could be used to lift the trash from the surface of the harbor. Kellett began working on a design for a water wheel that, powered by the flowing water, could continuously lift trash from the Jones Falls River tributary to the harbor. He took his concept to the city, which agreed to buy his trash removal device “if he could get it built.”

Cleaning a Harbor the Old-Fashioned Way
Lindquist says the Waterfront Partnership, too, had focused concerted efforts on cleaning up litter. With its emphasis on cleaning up the trash marring the landscape surrounding the harbor and its attractions, he says, “What we realized was that no matter much we cleaned the land directly adjacent to the harbor, we didn’t have any control over that trash in the water because it was coming from the Jones Falls watershed.”

According to Lindquist, that watershed covers 60 square miles, including a large part of Baltimore and areas north of the city stretching into Baltimore County. After a series of discussions of what the Waterfront Partnership could do about trash arriving at the harbor from such an expansive and varied terrain that included farmlands, urban infrastructure, roads, and residences, the members came up with a plan.

They determined that they “should do more than just deal with the trash problem, but should look at what it would take to restore the environmental quality of the Baltimore Harbor,” says Lindquist. “In 2008 we launched the campaign to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020.”

Around the time of their decision, members of the Waterfront Partnership may have noticed a small wooden shed that appeared at the mouth of a tributary to the harbor. Inside was a device that harkened back to the days when a large swath of industry in Baltimore was powered by flowing water. It was Kellett’s prototype trash wheel. While the water wheels in historic times helped fabricate goods ranging from ship sails to household furnishings, this new water wheel would have one purpose: picking up trash. As the administrators of the business improvement district dedicated to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the members of the Waterfront Partnership watched with interest.

From 2008 through 2009 the prototype trash wheel worked day and night at the mouth of the Jones Falls River, relying on the forces of nature to remove trash from the water.

Kellett says the harbor was soon ­visibly cleaner.

The Waterfront Partnership and the city’s Department of Public Works noticed, too. “We saw it reduced a significant amount of trash,” says Lindquist.

However, before the prototype’s test run, there had been no way to estimate the volume of trash that needed to be addressed. “You really don’t have any idea how much trash is coming down the tributary until you can capture it and measure it,” explains Kellett, and it was much more than expected. “We quickly discovered we needed a bigger, faster wheel.”

The Waterfront Partnership liked the concept and asked Kellett to design and build a larger version of the trash wheel for permanent installation. Kellett agreed and organized the firm Clearwater Mills, of which he is now president, to build full-scale, full-service models of the trash wheel. With funding from Constellation Energy and mitigation funding from Maryland Port Administration, a new trash-eating water wheel entered into service on the Jones Falls at a cost of $750,000 to build and install.

Kellett notes that before the trash wheel’s arrival, the city of Baltimore Department of Public Works had its own programs for controlling trash in the harbor, such as deploying piloted trash skimmers to sail the harbor collecting litter. Although Kellett concedes that skimmers can play an important role in clearing trash, he notes, “One of the drawbacks is they don’t pick up the trash as it comes in; they have to go around and chase it.” He says the skimmers are a good technology for handling some of the pollution that enters the harbor directly from the adjacent shores and promenades, but he believes the best place to collect trash is at the mouth of the river, “where the trash is most heavily concentrated, so that it’s almost like dealing with a point source.”

Affectionately dubbed “Mr. Trash Wheel” by its fans, the Clearwater Mills trash collection device can lift all sorts of objects from the water. “It acts as its own transmission,” explains Kellett. “The wheel doesn’t care how much something weighs; it just moves it faster or slower depending on the load on the conveyor.”

It has been filmed hoisting items as big as truck wheel and tire assemblies from the water, in addition to massive logs thrown into the Jones Falls by storms and run-of-the-mill trash resulting from carelessness throughout the watershed. The wheel is paired with a 20-cubic-yard dumpster on a separate floating barge that stores the trash for removal by the Department of Public Works through an agreement to manage disposal of the collected trash.

“Absolutely, you can see a difference,” says Lindquist. “John’s crew picked up six dumpsters of trash in a single storm, and you can just imagine if that was all spread out over the water—that’s the situation we used to see routinely, and now it never happens. That’s the great thing about the trash wheel: from the moment you install it, you’re never going to see huge trash flows on the Inner Harbor.”

However, Kellett says intercepting trash from the Jones Falls River is only part of the solution to a much bigger problem. He believes a large part of the reason there is so much trash is lack of awareness and misconceptions about trash and what becomes of it when it litters the landscape.

Lindquist agrees. He says there are even some people who believe that littering actually helps generate employment. “I’ve heard people say, when they throw a piece of trash on the ground, that it’s giving somebody a job to clean it up.” Ideas like these raised the concern that, upon hearing of the trash wheel, “people would just think they can throw trash out and the wheel will just clean everything up,” possibly encouraging even more littering.

Kellett notes, “The trash wheel is not a solution to the problem of trash. It is a way to treat the symptom of the problem. The real solution is to keep it from getting there to begin with.”

Lindquist agrees: “I’m a watershed planner, and I took this position knowing we’d need to work upstream.”

The trash wheel prototype begins capturing refuse.

The trash wheel prototype begins capturing refuse.

Trash Talk Among Neighbors
The Watershed Partnership joined forces with Blue Water Baltimore, a community-based clean water advocacy group, to produce a water-quality report card. On this report, Lindquist says, the harbor has routinely received failing grades for most of the criteria.

In 2014, the Waterfront Partnership hired a ­community organizer to go into ­communities “to build partnerships and help them decide their priority issues” and work with residents to help impact the cleanliness of Baltimore neighborhoods. One of these projects, the Alley Makeover Program, gives
the community tools such as recycling bins and trashcans to do cleanups. Funded by a grant from the Rauch Foundation, Waterfront Partnership worked with neighborhood ­associations to throw block parties focused on cleaning alleys of garbage and debris and making them into spaces residents can enjoy.

“We usually try to mark the space with artwork related to water, such as murals on the wall. Some neighborhoods have done much larger pieces where they painted their entire alley to look like a stream that used to flow through the community. It helps bring the block together and reset expectations for the space, so we aren’t doing a cleanup and it just gets dirty again the next day.”

The original trash problem on the Inner Harbor

The original trash problem on the Inner Harbor

The Waterfront Partnership also forged alliances with Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability to do “trash talks” in various communities around the city, leading to a document of recommendations for what the city government could do to improve the cleanliness of neighborhoods. One of those recommendations was to develop a citywide peer-to-peer network focused on cleanup. In response, the city initiated a program called Clean Corps to promote cleanup projects in various neighborhoods of the city.

Organized as a partnership between the city’s Environmental Control Board, the Department of Public Works, Baltimore Green Works, and the Waterfront Partnership, Clean Corps has selected 20 pilot projects in the city. “We train Clean Captains in the neighborhood, and they reach out to their neighbors and friends and inform them about Clean Corps and recruit them into the program,” says Lindquist. “It’s a two-way street where we identify the leaders interested in doing cleanups and bring the resources to the community. If there is something that community residents identify as a problem, Clean Corps gives them a voice and a way to influence systemic change in the way agencies such as Department of Public Works do their job.”

Lindquist believes handling the cleanliness issue can expand from the waterfront to serve as a doorway to solving other urban problems. “We’ve never had to convince people that they should do something about trash. The cleanliness of neighborhoods and illegal dumping are at the top of their mind in the neighborhoods we’ve been working in.” He says studies have found that “when a neighborhood is clean, crime goes down there. People realize that when their block looks cleaner it gets treated with more respect.”

Finding Friends
In addition to working in neighborhoods, Lindquist believes it’s essential to bring residents from all over the watershed into closer physical proximity to the harbor, if possible out on the water itself. “We do activities where we bring residents out on the Snow Goose,” which is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s research and work boat. “Some residents have never been on a boat before. People don’t expect to see so much life in the harbor.”

Kellett believes that, viewed from the proper perspective, rather than promoting complacency the trash wheel can help promote better ­awareness of the trash problem

and improved stewardship in the community. “The big advantage of the trash wheel is that the ­tech­nology draws attention to the problem,” he says. “When you draw attention to a problem in a positive way, you can inspire people. It’s amazing the number of people that come by and see the waterwheel who didn’t have a concept of a watershed and didn’t know that if a trash can gets knocked over by dogs or raccoons or whatever on their block, that ends up impacting the downstream area and ends up hurting the harbor and the oceans and causes problems all along the way.”

Mr. Trash Wheel got a new partner in 2017, by the name of Professor Trash Wheel. Constructed and installed by Clearwater Mills and imbued with a female persona, represented by the googly eyes with long lashes gracing its canopy, Professor Trash Wheel joined the effort to make the harbor swimmable, collecting trash at the outfall of Harris Creek.

A smaller tributary to the Inner Harbor, Harris Creek is “fed entirely by storm drains,” says Kellett. Its highly urbanized watershed delivers “a much higher percentage of plastic waste than the Jones Falls watershed, which covers rural and urbanized areas and carries a high proportion of organics, including tree limbs and timber,” he adds.

While the city has committed to dispose of the waste collected by both trash wheels at the city incinerator, Kellett says that because of the high proportion of plastic debris expected at the Harris Creek wheel, there may also be opportunities in the future to implement recycling of the waste collected by the more scholarly of the harbor’s two social-media-friendly trash wheels.

According to the Healthy Harbor Report Card, in 2015 the trash wheel collected 238.9 tons of trash. That included 98,940 plastic grocery bags and 2.86 million cigarette butts.

“The trash wheel has gone viral on social media and YouTube, which adds to the benefit of making people aware of the problem and inspiring them to become part of the solution,” says Kellett.

Vintage and contemporary views of the Inner Harbor and Jones Falls River

Vintage views of the Inner Harbor and Jones Falls River

Visualizing the Invisible
EPA’s Village Blue project aims to reach a broader community for water quality by making invisible water-quality impairments much more tangible to lay audiences by using technology and data. Village Blue Urban Partnership plans to install an array of automated water-quality sensors neighboring Mr. Trash Wheel at the mouth of the Jones Falls River to collect water-quality data across a number of parameters. Kevin Oshima, a virologist and associate director for science for the EPA Exposure Methods and Measurements Division, says, “Water-sensor technology has become much more available, and there are constantly new ones being developed, so they are becoming more mainstream.” With this evolution, he explains, “The ability to have real-time data offers a new venue for community outreach.”

Contemporary views of the Inner Harbor and Jones Falls River

Contemporary views of the Inner Harbor and Jones Falls River

He says, “One thing we’re interested in is deploying a sensor array and collecting various water-quality indices and translating that into a visualization of the information that can be easily comprehended by laypersons and the public in a manner that resonates.” He includes in that audience policy makers, water-quality advocates, and area residents.

Oshima says the Inner Harbor site was selected not only because it offers a peek into water quality for the entire Jones Falls watershed, but also because it is the home of significant stakeholder groups such as the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center that are interested in improving water quality.

“This is viewed as a demonstration project. Sensors are a relatively new product, and there are scientific questions and technical questions—how best to deploy them and manage quality assurance of the data, and how to convey that to the community and engage the community,” he says. Once the project has gone full circle, part of the effort will be to develop a guide for how to replicate real-time monitoring and public engagement programs in other communities.

The sensor array is expected to be deployed in the next few months. It’s much more than just the data its also what do those things mean and how do those parameters interact with each other.

Professor Trash Wheel, the newest addition to the fleet, harvests litter from Harris Creek.

Professor Trash Wheel, the newest addition to the fleet, harvests litter from Harris Creek.

Although the system has not been tested as a completed array, according to Oshima, each of the individual sensors was selected for its existing track record and reliability. The array will collect data on conductivity, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, pH, temperature, turbidity, tidal height, and flow direction and velocity. Algae growth will be monitored using chlorophyll and phycocyanin data. The data will be posted to the National Water Information System every six minutes.

Baltimore Harbor is in the middle of the largest total maximum daily load (TMDL) established by EPA the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. The TMDL Watershed Implementation Plan is a requirement of the city’s MS4 permit, which was issued on December 27, 2013. Although the permit aims to restore water quality to a fishable and swimmable level, it is often not the letter of the law that motivates change, but inspiration and example. Mr. Trash Wheel has begun to provide that inspiration. It will take time and continued dedication but Lindquist believes Baltimore’s residents might someday soon be able enjoy a lunchtime swim from an Inner Harbor landing during the middle of the work week.

“The greatest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of engaging your audience.” Lindquist says he now keeps a focus on ways to get more Baltimoreans involved with stewardship of the harbor wherever they live in the watershed, and to “remind the public the harbor is alive and fun.” SW_bug_web


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