Baltimore Harbor Water Quality Gets a Failing Grade for 2013

· by

Sharing is caring!

Healthy Harbor Report Card coverThe 2013 Healthy Harbor Report Card is out, and Baltimore’s waterways have received a grade of “F”.

Sanitary sewer overflows, illicit connections to our stormwater system, and other chronic pollution issues continue to plague our city and contribute to these failing grades.

Last year the grade was a “C-“: even though we saw quantitative improvement in water quality from 2012 to 2013, the grade dropped because of a change in the way we assign these grades.

In fact, between last year’s 2012 report card and the 2013 card, Blue Water Baltimore and the Waterfront Partnership undertook three major changes to our Healthy Harbor Report Card.

First, we expanded our water quality monitoring program into the non-tidal portion of the Patapsco River (aka “Baltimore Harbor”) watershed. This allowed us to characterize the health of the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls watersheds, both of which drain directly into the Baltimore Harbor and tidal Patapsco River. Each non-tidal site was sampled twice each month from April to November for five water quality indicators: dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity, turbidity, nutrients, and fecal bacteria. By creating and analyzing this robust data set, we generated a year-long snapshot of the health of Baltimore’s river and stream tributaries to the Harbor for the first time ever.

Sampling more sites helped improve our Healthy Harbor Report Card data.
Sampling more sites helped improve our Healthy Harbor Report Card data.

Second, we improved changed the scope of our tidal sampling program – we now monitor the entire Tidal Patapsco River, to the convergence with the Chesapeake Bay between Bodkin Creek and Old Road Bay. Until now, a single fixed sampling station south of the Key Bridge at Fort Carroll – monitored by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources – provided long-term data for the entire tidal Patapsco River. With more extensive sampling, we have closed a data gap and can represent more completely the health of the tidal Patapsco.

The third major change is to the scoring methodology: the Healthy Harbor Report Card is no longer “graded on a curve.”

The overall grade is calculated by averaging the scores for Baltimore’s different watersheds then converting that score into a grade.

In the 2012 Healthy Harbor Report Card, the numeric score was 41% and in 2013 it was 54%. That is a definite improvement.

But under the old grading system, a score of 41% would have been assigned a grade of “C-“ because we were using a quintile grading system.

In our old quintile grading system, letter grades were assigned in equal fifths along the percentage scale:

100% – 81% = A
80% – 61% = B
60% – 41% = C
40% – 21% = D
20% – 0% = F

Although this system made it easier to visualize changes in the health of the Harbor, Blue Water Baltimore and the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore concluded that a quintile system was inadequate for conveying the true health of Baltimore’s streams, rivers, and Harbor to the public.

So, this year we moved from a quintile scoring system to an academic scoring system, one that is more familiar and will require a score of 70% to generate a passing grade.

overflow
Storms overwhelm Baltimore’s aging infrastructure, leading to sewage pollution in our streams.

Most people expect that a “C” grade is “average,” so giving Baltimore’s waters a C- sent the wrong message: that the water quality in the Harbor “isn’t that bad” even though the truth is clear: a score of 54%, while an improvement over last year’s grade, is a failure.

Despite the fact that this year’s grade was an “F”, the higher numeric score tells us that we are moving in the right direction. Efforts by homeowners, businesses, and governments in our watershed to reduce storm water pollution, sewage, trash, and toxic contamination are starting to make a difference.

You can make a difference!

Blue Water Baltimore is recruiting volunteers to join our Adopt-A-Stream and Outfall Screening Blitz programs, both of which are aimed at training people like you to find, identify, and report the kinds of pollution that are lead to these failing grades.

To find out what else you can do to help improve Baltimore’s water quality (and next year’s grade), sign up to learn more about upcoming volunteer events.