After two centuries of industrial development, Baltimore's hard-edged inner harbor bears no resemblance to the lush wetlands that once covered the port. 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 phosphorous from sewage that leaks into the water from hundred year old pipes. The city is trying to deal with that, slowly replacing leaky pipes for example. But down by the south end of the harbor, there's another idea being floated.
Andy Freeman, with the Baltimore Marine Centers, is at the harbor view marina that overlooks the Dominos Sugar Factory. He's looking at about 1.6 acres of open water, lined by iron and concrete barriers along the shore. "Our concept is to put a floating wetland here," says Freeman. "Floating wetland, essentially is the same thing as a natural wetland except that it uses a floating material that's made from recyclables that float, 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 the bottles would not be seen.
"It would be a field of green, which would have all types of plant material on it," he says. "You know, wetlands type material on it. But the concept is that there would be walkways throughout it so that people could actually enjoy it. I mean think of it as just a typical park, although this would be a very unique park, but it would give people the opportunity to walk throughout it, and to really enjoy it and to learn from it — to see how wetlands actually work."
Baltimore Marine Centers is planning for 2 acres, and maybe a lot more around the harbor.
A smaller scale version can be seen at the World Trade Center on the inner harbor.
"We're looking at 2,000 square feet of healthy robust floating wetlands," says Laurie Schwartz, with the Waterfront Partnership. "It looks like grasses growing on the water, which they actually are."
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.
"As the plants grow, they help remove nutrients from the water," says Adam Lindquist, also with the Waterfront Partnership. "They help to clean the water as they're growing."
Now, there is no way that enough floating wetlands could be installed to clean the water in Baltimore's Harbor, and there are some hard core infrastructure changes that need to happen to keep the water clean. But Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, says wetlands aren't something to scoff at.
"What really works in these floating wetlands is kind of below the surface," he says. "Below the surface is that 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 muscles 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.
"For the restricted exchange that Baltimore Harbor has with the Bay, and the relative size, this could make a difference, particularly in a marina type area where it's even more choked off from natural flushing," he says.
At the very least, Dennison and others argue, it'd be a cool place to take school kids and teach the public. But that's in land of ideas, and we live in reality. And Andy Freeman with Baltimore Marine Centers says he's not quite sure when these wetlands might actually happen.
"We have an application in with the MDE," says Freeman. "It's been almost a year, and we've gotten these comments back. We have answered the comments, and we're not really sure what the next step is."
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. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to approve it, too.
"We evaluate any structures, excavation or dredging in any navigable waters in the U.S.," says Joseph Davia, with the Army Corps of Engineers.
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 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," says Schwartz. "So the various government permitting entities want to make sure before they allow an entrepreneur to invest that they can anticipate what challenges or issues might crop up, so it doesn't surprise me."
[Music: Baltimore Harbor: "Cool Clean Water" by Marty Robbins from The Very Best of Marty Robbins]