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Inner Harbor water quality barely passes

The water quality in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor last year was given a grade of C-minus by local environmentalists hired to gauge the viability of one of the city’s greatest assets, its waterfront.

A mass of litter and debris float on the surface of the water on the south side of the Inner Harbor.

The 2012 version of the “Healthy Harbor Report Card” is scheduled to be released Monday by the nonprofit Waterfront Partnership. In it, researchers noted that the water quality in the Inner Harbor met water quality standards only 40 percent of the time — in part because of dead zones from an algae bloom and raw sewage spill last spring.

Also, pollutants from frequent sewage and stormwater spills have mired attempts to boost the water quality.

“We got a C-minus grade, but I think a lot of people expected a lower grade in the water,” said Adam Lindquist, coordinator for the Healthy Harbor Initiative component of the partnership. “We got off lucky.”

Lindquist said the Waterfront Partnership used part of a $240,000 grant from the Abell Foundation to fund the collection of water samples biweekly from 30 locations around the city’s Inner Harbor, Middle Branch and Patapsco River area. Researchers from the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore collected and analyzed the samples.

That information will help develop a profile of the Inner Harbor as officials of the Waterfront Partnership work toward a goal to make it swimmable and fishable by 2020. A Healthy Harbor report released in 2010 aimed to make the waterway safe for human use within 10 years.

“It’s given us a tremendous amount of data that we’ve never had before,” Lindquist said.

That includes a breakdown of elements from stormwater runoff in parts of the Inner Harbor, nutrient levels, bacteria levels and water clarity data.

Last year, the harbor was the site of a large algae bloom in the spring and fish kill (blamed on a mild winter), the report said. When algae dies, it “decomposes and sucks all of the oxygen out of the water,” Lindquist said.

The dry summer helped, the report said, because of limited stormwater drainage into the Inner Harbor from pipes underneath city roads. Projects such as painting stormwater drains in the city’s communities to make residents aware of cleaning up trash and clutter around them, street sweeping and conversion of vacant lots into community gardens have helped efforts to clean up the harbor, the report said.

The problems of raw sewage flowing into the Inner Harbor continue. Last week, the city’s Department of Public Works blamed a “buildup of grease” in a sewer main in the 4700 block of Falls Road for an overflow that dumped about 21,775 gallons of raw effluent into the Jones Falls over a 15-hour period.

“To me, the C-minus grade says there is hope,” Lindquist said. “We got lucky with the C-minus because it was a dry year; if this is a wet summer, we could see that grade go down.

“But we can’t rely on dry weather to clean up the harbor. We need to keep working on reducing stormwater runoff on our properties. …We’re going to need to do a lot more work to get the grade up into the B’s.”