Pollution Sleuthing: the Waterkeeper team hits the streets

In Armistead Gardens, a massive mountain of soil, sediment, and debris towers over the neighboring trails. Nicknamed “Mount Dirt” by locals, this pile holds thousands of pounds of sediment—one of the four major types of pollution afflicting the city’s waterways. Thought to be self-contained, Mount Dirt was largely left alone by local authorities until, one day, a local passerby noticed part of the mass had collapsed. This eroding face had entirely filled a tributary connecting Armistead Run and Buttonbush Swamp. After receiving a tip on Blue Water Baltimore’s Pollution Reporting Hotline [link], the Waterkeeper Team sprang into action. Using drone technology, our team, in partnership with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) captured images and video of the pollution issue, which helped MDE enforce an existing consent order to put an end to this pollution.  

Further downstream, the Waterkeeper team received another report—water was flooding the streets of Canton. With the help of the media and committed ordinary citizens, our teams tracked this apparent watermain break back to its source. Storm drains, maintained by Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, were releasing huge amounts of sediment into the water, clogging key pipes, and causing breaks and overflows.  

In both cases, committed citizens played an integral role in addressing sources of pollution in their communities through Blue Water Baltimore’s community-engagement programs. COVID-19 related closures limited our team’s ability to get out on the water, so we adapted and spent most of 2020 expanding the reach of our pollution reporting programs.  By doing so, we involved more Baltimoreans in the fight against pollution in our waterways. By shifting our signature “Evening with Your Waterkeeper” event digitally, our teams were able to spend less time orchestrating an in-person event, allowing for  lengthy trends analyses on water quality data instead. Time is precious and the pandemic gave our Waterkeeper team the time it needed to do a deep dive into our scientific work.    

For the first time since the beginning of our water quality monitoring program, we can confidently say that bacteria levels in Baltimore’s waterways are remaining at consistent levels and, in some locations, notably decreasing. What does this mean? “Well, it could mean that projects on land are working,” said our Water Quality Scientist, Barbara Johnson. For more information on water quality, check out Baltimore Water Watch updated weekly!