MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Sabri Ben-Achour in today for Rebecca Sheir. Our theme today is New Beginnings so we've done politics, we've heard some personal stories and now we're going to dive into the environmental. After two centuries of industrial development, Baltimore's hard-edged inner harbor bears no resemblance to the lush wetlands that once covered the port.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
And technically, the harbor is not safe for diving or wading or swimming of any kind. Not by a long shot, it has bacteria levels around five times the safe limit for humans plus nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage that leaks into water from 100 year old pipes. The city's trying to deal with that, slowly replacing those leaky pipes, for example. But down by the south end of the harbor there's another idea being floated.
MR. ANDY FREEMAN
We're at the Harbor View Marina just overlooking the Domino Sugar Factory and we're looking at about 1.6 acres of open water.
Andy Freeman is with Baltimore Marine Centers, which owns a bunch of marinas. He's looking at an open expanse of water lined by iron and concrete pylons and barriers along the shore.
Our concept is to put a floating wetland here.
A floating wetland is, it's what it sounds like.
Floating wetland essentially is the same thing as a natural wetland except that it uses a floating material that's made from recyclables and you can actually plant wetland type plants in this material, and it will grow.
The same plastic bottles that trash the harbor can be turned into floats that hold mats of tall marsh grasses and, no, you cannot see the bottles.
It would be a field of green, all types of plant material on it. There would be walkways throughout it so that people could actually enjoy it. I mean think of it as just, you know, a typical park, although this would be a very unique park.
Baltimore Marine Centers is planning for 1.6 acres and maybe a lot more around the harbor. You can actually see what this would look like on a much smaller scale if you go to the World Trade Center on the inner harbor. Laurie Schwartz is with the Waterfront Partnership.
MS. LAURIE SCHWARTZ
It looks like grasses growing on the water, which they actually are as you can see, living and growing. And there are a few ducks that have adopted one wetland in particular.
Schwartz's group helped put together this pilot floating wetland. Now yes, these green grassy floats are very pretty and ducks are cute but they actually might serve an environmental purpose. Adam Lindquist is also with the Waterfront Partnership.
MR. ADAM LINDQUIST
When it rains a lot of nutrients come down into the harbor and that causes algae blooms which eventually lead to fish kills and we some bad fish kills here this spring. And what these wetlands do is as the plants grow they help remove nutrients from the water.
Now, there is no way that enough floating wetlands could be put in to clean all the water in Baltimore's Harbor but Bill Dennison says wetlands aren't something to scoff at. He's Vice President for Science Applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
MR. BILL DENNISON
The hidden secret to these floating wetlands is not visible to the naked eye but below the water surface. The surface area of the plastic structure that holds up the marsh plants is actually harboring a diverse array of organisms that are filtering the bay, little dark false mussels and barnacles and bacterial films that are really good at processing nutrients and removing them from the water column.
He says it's unproven in practice and probably wouldn't work for the Bay as a whole, but for this little corner of the harbor, it might.
This could make a difference, particularly in a marina type area where it's even more choked off from natural flushing.
At the very least, Dennison and other people argue, it'd be a cool place to take school kids and teach the public. But that is in Ideaville and we live in reality. Andy Freeman with Baltimore Marine Centers says he's not quite sure when these wetlands might actually happen.
You know, we have an application in with the MDE. It's been almost a year and we have gotten these comments back. We've have answered the comments and we're not really sure what the next step is. We need the permit obviously in order to move forward.
The Maryland Department of the Environment, or MDE, declined to grant an interview for this story but it did point out that by law it has to determine whether the floating wetlands would require any unnecessary dredging and particularly whether the piers and walkways are absolutely necessary.
Freeman argues having a wetland park with no boardwalk is like having Central Park with nobody allowed to go into it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to approve the plan too. Joseph Davia is with the Army Corps of Engineers.
MR. JOSEPH DAVIA
We evaluate any structures, excavation or dredging in navigable waters of the U.S. and so primarily we are looking at navigation issues, safety issues, landowner issues, you know, how far channel-ward the structure is, is it anchored properly. Would these structures break loose if there were a storm event, are they being maintained properly?
On top of all that the city has to approve the plan too and one of the major concerns of some city leaders is that the wetland might impede commercial redevelopment of the harbor. Everyone is meeting later this month to talk about it. And there appears to be a lot of confusion among both city and state regulators as to what the plan is.
For example, they repeatedly told us there was an amphitheater that was going to be built but plans reviewed by WAMU 88.5 didn't show any structure like that. Laurie Schwartz with the Waterfront Partnership urges patience.
Well, I think floating wetlands, unlike natural wetlands, are still a new concept and so the various government permitting entities want to make sure before they allow an entrepreneur to invest in a major installation wetlands that they can anticipate what challenges or issues or problems might crop up, so I'm not surprised it's taking some time for government regulators to learn more and think about and anticipate the issues that'll crop up with a much larger installation.
You can see plans for the future and pictures of pilot wetlands at our website, metroconnection.org.
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