Baltimore Inner Harbor, Chesapeake Bay

We have been living in the waters of the Baltimore Inner Harbor for 3 years now. There is a plan in place to make the waters swimmable and fishable by 2020, but at the moment we are a long ways away from achieving that level of cleanliness, they currently have an F for water quality.


The Maryland Department of the Environment blames the boaters for causing all of the pollution and will quickly come by to hand out fines to offending boaters. While it is very unsanitary to empty ones holding tank into the harbor, the boaters are not the big offender, it is actually the city!

The problem is the aging sewer system in the city. After the great fire in 1904, the city was rebuilt with separate storm drain and sewer drain systems. The separate systems are laid out in close proximity to each other and after more than 100 years, they are broken and leak into one another. When it rains, storm water runs out of its piping and into the sewer system. This overtaxes the sewer system and the excess pressure is released into the bay. At the same time, the sewer system perpetually leaks into the storm drain system which empties directly into the Inner Harbor. 

Back in the 1980s, this was deemed a concern as the Baltimore Harbor water contained unsafe levels of fecal bacteria. Chemical and metal plants built along the shoreline used to dump their waste directly into the water, adding heavy metal and petrochemical pollution to the mix. This problem has continued to grow unchecked for many years, only now we are aware of the problem. 

The city has done some initiative to help clean up the bay. One of the most productive methods to tame the trash pollution has been a solar powered trash collector called "Mr. Trashwheel". 


While reducing the amount of actual trash that flows into the Chesapeake Bay is wonderful, it still doesn't help with the amount of fecal bacteria that is being dumped into the harbor everyday.

I think most people are oblivious to the problem, and therefore do not worry about the consequences of their actions. To them, spilling a little oil, throwing a plastic bottle out of their window as they drive, or tossing their cigarette butt onto the ground doesn't make much of a difference. They think oil will soak into the ground, and their trash will disappear. The truth is it all gets flushed out into the water with the next rainfall.

After every rain, the Baltimore Inner Harbor has a particular odor, something along the line of a good whiff of your holding tank vent. Gorgeous rainbows glimmer on the waters surface as oil slicks radiate away from the storm drain pipes. 

Usually, the prevailing winds will clear the air rather quickly and all is forgotten. Then the EPA can continue to blame boaters for polluting the harbor waters.


The weekend of December 12 and 13 made it particularly clear how bad the pollution is. A temperature inversion occurred and the whole area was completely calm. There was no wind for days, and the water only moved with the tide. Everything was completely still as unseasonably warm air loomed over the city and its waters. 


The entire area reeked of rotting cabbage and the water became especially "thick" as the locals call it. Water clarity was non-existent, everything disappeared from sight as soon as it entered the foul soup. We noticed that all the ducks had flown away and the entire area seemed devoid of life. Trash began to accumulate as there was no wind to carry it out into the bay and in a few short days the harbor became so ostentatious that we contemplated moving to cleaner waters. I can only imagine how the waterfront property owners felt since they do not have the luxury of easily moving to another waterfront area. 

I feel that land dwellers would be more sympathetic to the environmental impacts of their actions if they saw more immediate reactions. If you spill oil in your yard, it "disappears" into the grass, do the same on a boat and an enormous oil slick will extend from your hull off into the distance. Throw your trash out the window of your car, and it "disappears", on a boat it will continue to float alongside you, reminding you that nothing "disappears".

Living aboard also makes you measurably more aware of your consumption and wastes. If you take a long shower in a house, you pay a higher water bill; but when you have to fill those tanks more often, soon you will begin to take quicker showers. I also feel that trashcans and dumpsters make people underestimate their level of waste since it is out of sight. They simply haul it out to the curb once a week and away it goes. When I was a kid, we (a family of four) produced so much trash that we had three 55 gallon drums on a cart that we would wheel out to the curb weekly. As a kid, I would push the cart out to the street without ever thinking about how much trash we generated. 

Now I use grocery bags hanging from the galley as the trash bags. I have no trashcan to hide my trash and see the bag grow as I generate more waste. My fiancee and I are very aware of how much trash we generate as we carry it down the dock to the marina dumpster. We now produce 1 to 2 grocery bags of trash per week, simply because we are more careful about how much trash we make.

I am not alone in our limited waste production. Most other boaters I know also produce a very limited amount of waste by comparison to land dwellers. We are all more conscientious of our impact on the environment because we see the direct effect of our actions.

If the EPA and Maryland Department of the Environment would turn their attention away from the boaters floating in this polluted waterway and towards the actual problem, they may stand a better chance at cleaning up the harbor and making it swimmable and fishable by 2020.