August 6, 2013

Keeping Baltimore on Track with Sewer Upgrades

Arunima Shukla

Arunima Shukla

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future


Sewage discharge from stormwater outfall

If you catch an unpleasant whiff near the Baltimore Inner Harbor or notice a suspicious looking object floating around, you may be having a close encounter with raw untreated sewage that routinely makes its way into our neighborhoods and waterways.

In 2002, a lawsuit pertaining to illegal discharges of raw sewage from the Baltimore wastewater collection system led to a settlement, called a consent decree, in which the City agreed to complete extensive sewer upgrades (and other construction work related to sewage discharges) by 2016. Sadly, the City seems not to have made sufficient progress and is now seeking to renegotiate terms of the decree and seek an extension to the 2016 deadline.  Blue Water Baltimore, an organization seeking to restore the quality of Baltimore’s rivers, streams, and Harbor, wants to intervene in the negotiation process to ensure that important terms in the original decree are not drastically changed. Check out their blog and info-graphic explaining the top six priorities they want the City to better address as they work on upgrading the 100-year-old wastewater system.

While there is awareness of the fact that the water quality in the Inner Harbor is not great, most people don’t realize how bad it really is and the health risks they may be exposed to.

The public health risks from annually discharging millions of gallons of raw sewage are severe. They include potential exposure to a myriad of disease-causing pathogens, pesticide and pharmaceutical drug residues, and algal blooms that not only cause fish-kills but can also be toxic to humans.  There are food safety issues from untreated sewage discharges as well. People are generally aware that seafood caught in the Harbor is not fit for consumption, however, the contaminated water flows to fishable areas and can affect fishermen, aquaculturists, and consumers.

Healthy Harbor, an initiative by the Waterfront Partnership to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, has created a report on the state of Harbor based on key ecological indicators. They found that the Harbor is doing very poorly on nearly all of them.

There is long way to go, but hope is definitely not lost to restore our infrastructure and the area’s water quality. The City has made some progress in dealing with the tremendous infrastructural problem of its aging sewer systems. The Harbor is undoubtedly Baltimore’s best asset. Besides being a local treasure, it’s also a main attraction point for tourists.  We must reduce raw sewage discharges to unlock the full potential of the Harbor and protect citizens and visitors from health risks associated with uncontained waste.

Photo: Blue Water Baltimore, 2013.


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