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Baltimore a pilot city for federal water initiative

Baltimore is one of seven pilot cities nationwide participating in a new federal urban waters initiative that doesn’t promise any new funding but hopes to increase cooperation among federal and local agencies.

Eleven federal agencies led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of the Interior and Agriculture are spearheading the effort announced Friday by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Baltimore’s Middle Branch Park.

Jackson noted agencies across the country are already spending money on infrastructure, money that can be used to restore waterways if spent appropriately.

While storm drains carry away runoff, for example, “it’s much cleaner for water to go back into the ground than to roll off down this big highway right here, carrying all the pollution and sediment with it into our water bodies,” Jackson said as traffic from a bridge over the Patapsco River droned in the background.

Planners who have relied on pipes and cement and mortar in the past are coming to realize green spaces cost less and can filter storm runoff, helping cities meet Clean Water Act requirements. The federal agencies in the pilot program will help the cities develop that green infrastructure.

“We know it can be done, and we actually are starting to see studies of places that are doing it and saving money,” Jackson said.

Besides Baltimore’s Patapsco watershed, other pilot locations in the program are the Anacostia watershed in the District of Columbia and Maryland; the Bronx and Harlem River watersheds in New York; the South Platte River in Denver; the Los Angeles River watershed; the Lake Pontchartrain area in New Orleans; and the northwest Indiana area.

The White House’s Domestic Policy Chair, Melody Barnes, called it a new way of doing business for the federal government.

Jackson said the federal government was working to eliminate the “silos” that had separated efforts by various agencies.

Other agencies involved in the initiative include the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The corps, for example, can be involved in planning, design and construction, said Amy Guise, chief of project development for the corps’ Baltimore district.

Donna Myers, chief of the office of water quality programs for the U.S. Geological Survey, said the agency is involved with water quality studies and can also provide mapping and other scientific support.

Michael Rains of the U.S. Forest Service said a half million dollars already being spent in the Patapsco watershed could be redirected to the initiative, and when combined with other agencies could have a significant impact.

“We can be a force,” said Rains, director of the service’s Northern Research Station in Newton Square, Pa.

Betty Bland-Thomas, president of Historic Sharp-Leadenhall, spoke with Jackson as the EPA administrator participated in educational activities with local students. Bland-Thomas told Jackson the nearby neighborhood was one of the city’s oldest African-American communities, and its members enjoyed the neighborhood’s views of the water and wanted to make sure access to the waterfront continues. Bland-Thomas also told the EPA administrator about neighborhood education and restoration efforts.