Floating Wetland, Annapolis Meeting

I was recently given the pleasure of an invitation to a meeting regarding the Floating Wetlands project (see: An Intriguing New Concept in Water Quality Remediation: Floating Wetlands)  in the Baltimore Harbor. Held in the  Environmental Matters Committee room of the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis, those in attendance included Delegate Hammen; Delegate McIntosh, Chair of the Environmental Matters Committee; Phil Lee, presenter and project manager from Moffatt & Nichol; Dan Naor, owner of the Baltimore Marine Centers (BMC) site; Baltimore City Planning Department Planning Director, Tom Stosur, and planner, Jill Lemke; Jay Sakai, MDE Water Management Director; Scott Raymond of Living Classrooms; a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers; as well as representatives from Moffatt & Nichol, the Baltimore Aquarium, and Baltimore Marine Centers, among many others.

It was a terrific experience for me, and the first time I’ve attended any truly official legislative meeting regarding a proposal of this scale. The meeting was intended to present the project at its current stage, and discuss the next steps. The Harborview Floating Wetland proposal has been held up for some time now. Conceiving the idea in 2010, after a few local organizations launched small scale floating wetlands, Dan Naor has been working with Phil Lee and a team of individuals pushing for the approval of a 1.6 acre floating wetland to be constructed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It’s been caught up in the bureaucracy of development- issues mostly concerned with the proposed piers and platforms. To learn more about the struggles, you can see a portion of my 15 page report on Baltimore water quality describing the BMC Wetlands in my December 31st post.

The conversations I overheard this afternoon reflect that the platforms continue to be the primary concern, but that a few additional steps will ensure the project moves forward shortly. The officials, who make decisions based on existing regulations, have determined the platforms, in this case, to be non water-dependent (for their educational and recreational potential, I personally find them to serve purely water-dependent uses!).  In his presentation, Lee brought up a great and very interesting point: across the Harbor, between piers 3 and 4 (one of the most tourist-y spots in the Inner Harbor), you’ll find a total of 3 floating platforms. Their use? Restaurant seating. Now how is restaurant seating water dependent? Those tables could very well be located on land; it’s not like the water is needed below in order for the food to be served or consumed. Using Google Earth to estimate the size of each, I would guess the three are covering approximately 8,700 square feet of water. Yet, the piers and platforms proposed in the BMC Wetland, which is without a doubt more water-dependent than restaurant seating, is getting so much grief! To an outside individual, it seems absurd that something so trivial would be debated; and even more frustrating is the matter when you learn that the site owner could just as easily abandon the wetland project and get approval to put in an additional 50 slips.

To be fair, some good arguments were made by those who originally questioned the platform elements. Representatives who spoke on behalf of the Baltimore City Department of Planning, MDE, and the Army Corps of Engineers had all expressed their support for this project. Some went so far as to say that, although their job is to remain neutral- neither an opponent mor proponent- they were actually quite “excited” about this proposal. The issue, alas, is the bureaucracy of it all. Every project has to go through the hoops, meeting all the requirements, with absolutely everything checking out.  The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, have to recognize that the site is within navigable waters, and the project must thus undergo a number of analyses before it can be approved. I thought it was a smart statement (although still just an excuse for all the red tape) that the representative made when he justified all the minor annoying details of the process by saying the end result would be a plan or permit that was “bulletproof.” It takes a while, but when all’s said and done, the proposal cannot be knocked down.

The fact, right now, is that neither the Corps nor MDE have seen the numbers and figures which justify the proposed size and square footage of the platforms and piers. Should they receive these numbers soon, the representative of the Corps suggested this proposal could be nearing the end of its process in the next 1 to 2 weeks. The end is in sight!?

Now, as it turns out, the definition of “water-dependent” is also set by regulatory standards, or so I understand. I’m guessing (rather cynically, I suppose) that these standards must define “water-dependent” uses as those which generate some form of measurable revenue- including touristy restaurants? If only we could prove how revenue will increase as a result of this project. Well, actually, the team was awaiting assistance from Tom Noonan of Baltimore’s Office of Tourism to help produce foot traffic numbers. Perhaps Noonan might also help to project the future economic impact…

Everyone promised the project team that the three restaurant platforms, which popped up of the course of a few years, went through the same processes. I’m curious to know, however, if it took them as long?  Again, I’m being cynical. To sum it all up, though, I think great arguments were made by both sides. For whatever reason, the figures used to determine the platform sizes never made it into the Corps hands- in addition to a few other documents, actually. Until this missing information is shared, the project can’t progress. On the other hand, I think Phil Lee used brilliant analogies and comparisons to make his point. You wouldn’t put a wall up around a park, and you shouldn’t restrict the educational element of this wetland to the shore (where a pedestrian promenade would actually not allow that from happening in the first place). For every issue, Lee and the team had an appropriate response. It appears all the necessary studies have been conducted, and the missing results are all that’s preventing this proposal from finally getting through.

I learned a few other interesting things during the meeting. First, I found out about a large floating wetland in Singapore which opened in 2010, the Senkang Floating Wetland. To be honest, I haven’t done much floating wetland research outside of Baltimore. Actually, I’ve done none! But this project is a great comparison, and as you can see from the image below, it shows what a great educational resource a floating wetland can be! You can click on the photo to be directed to a short description of the wetland. And lastly, I learned of a Maryland company- Maryland Aquatic Nurseries- working on a floating wetland product! A representative was present, and I predict they’ll be involved in the BMC Wetland project down the road.

But what was the most important thing I took away from this afternoon’s meeting? The future of floating wetlands in Baltimore looks quite promising, and not too far away on the horizon!

Senkang Floating Wetland

An Intriguing New Concept in Water Quality Remediation: Floating Wetlands

[This is an excerpt from a final research paper created for my waterfront development course. The following paragraphs go into detail about a proposed wetland development for Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor.  The 15 page paper discusses the history of water quality, particularly in Baltimore, and how poor water quality might have adverse implications for future waterfront development. For a copy of the entire paper, or for the complete bibliography, please contact the author at sustainable.meg@gmail.com]


Figure 2 Photo looking southwest towards Pier 4, showing discolored harbor waters the day after rainstorms and the Aquarium’s new floating wetland in the bottom left [Source: Author, Apr. 23, 2012]

While legislation and a hardy regulatory framework are necessary to improve water conditions, the most provocative concepts for improving water quality have manifested themselves as physical solutions. In August of 2010, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, as part of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbors Initiative, and in an effort to meet the federally mandated regulations addressing the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for nutrient and sediment in our waters of the Chesapeake Bay, installed its first floating wetland (Figure 2 & Figure 3, bottom) between piers 3 and 4. While the Waterfront Partnership was working with the Aquarium to install this floating wetland, they were also working with Living Classrooms Foundation and Biohabitats to install a series of wetlands in front of the World Trade Tower (Figure 3, top).

floating wetlands

Figure 3 (Top) Floating wetlands in front of the World Trade Tower, (bottom) Aquarium floating wetlands two months after photo in Figure 2 [Source: Author, June 17, 2012]

Floating wetlands mimic the behavior of natural wetlands. Their submerged root systems becomes home to healthy bacteria and microbes which help to filter the contaminants currently circulating in the Harbor’s water. Additionally, mussels, a species known to filter water, and other creatures take residence on the island, establishing a microcosm of beneficial organisms. Made using roughly 3,000 recycled plastic bottles for every 250 square feet of wetland, the floats are anchored to the Harbor floor in order to limit their movement into the channel. In their blog post titled, “Wetlands are Wonderful!,” the Aquarium explained the purpose of the floating wetlands, as well as their origin. Initially, wetlands like these were used in wastewater retention ponds, or lagoons, to deal with excess nutrients. Only recently have such technologies been used in brackish, open waters like those of the Chesapeake Bay. The post also suggested the wetlands, despite their small size (each just 10 feet by 20 feet), would be a huge first step towards cleaning the Inner Harbor [The National Aquarium].

As the Aquarium concluded their blog post, they optimistically anticipated and hoped that the two recent wetland installations would be just the first of many for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and it would appear they were correct with their prediction. In August of 2011, a year after Baltimore’s first wetland installations, a similar project was proposed by a private entrepreneur and landowner.

The experimental floating wetlands that were first launched in 2010 by Waterfront Partnership had inspired Baltimore Marine Centers’ Chief Operating Officer, Dan Naor, to propose the construction of a similar, but intensely more elaborate, wetland of his own. It may come as a surprise to many that a private marina owner would propose a project that is entirelyfor public benefit[1], but Naor has expressed, “it’s his way of joining the fight to clean up the city’s major tourist attraction, which is blighted by trash, unfit to swim in and beset with algal blooms and fish kills” [Naor, as quoted in Wheeler 2012b].

HarborviewPerspectiveRendering.jpg Figure 4 Rendering of the proposed Harborview Floating Wetland [Source: Baltimore Marine Centers]

In a process which will continue for years into the future, with 100% completion by 2025, Naor is proposing to install 1.6 acres of wetland in an unused section of the Harborview Marina’s open water, the largest wetland project of its type yet to be proposed nationwide. The Marina, located just off Key Highway, currently controls 640 slips, and could easily acquire permits to add more. However, Naor has no interest in adding more slips to since his business has had difficulty recovering after the recession. The Harbor’s condition, as Naor explains, is partly to blame. Repeatedly, Baltimore Marine Centers patrons complain to Naor about the Harbor’s litter, appearance, and odor. To Naor, the Harborview Wetland isn’t seen as an income source. However, “the true effect,” he reveals, “if we can clean the water, we’ll get more business” [Wheeler, 2012b].

A floating wetland of the proposed scale, in addition to reducing the TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment, would serve to improve the Inner Harbor in many ways. The local creation and manufacturing of floating wetlands, which are currently produced out of Utah, presents business and job opportunism, in addition to educational opportunities [Lee, et al.]. Furthermore, their presence invites visits from tourists and wildlife alike.

A visit to the Blue Water Baltimore Bacteria Monitoring Website indicates that two areas near the  proposed Harborview Wetland site were recently reported as having moderate contact risk, suggesting that a wetland in this location would easily have a positive impact [Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper]. The Harborview Marina wetland project, however, has been tied up (no pun intended) in bureaucracy since it was first proposed in 2011. A year later and the project has still not been approved. In an article describing the project, journalist Wheeler innocently poses the question, “if a little green might help restore Baltimore’s ailing harbor, how can a lot be bad?” He’s referring, of course, to the success of the other floating wetland projects and investigates how Naor’s proposal is any different.

The issue with Naor’s proposal has been with the piers and platforms as seen illustrated in the rendering (Figure 4). Initially, the argument was that the piers and platforms would either have negative environmental impacts from being built over the water, or interfere with the continued development of the Inner Harbor waterfront- or both. Officials expressed they would consider a pledge from the owner, promising to remove the piers should the adjacent shore be developed, but then also decided that the Inner Harbor’s waterfront promenade must first be developed in the area before the wetland could be approved [Wheeler, 2012b]. Paradoxically, the incomplete promenade does not at all inhibit marina actives from continuing to occur at the site. The argument has now evolved to rationalize that, unlike boat slips and fishing piers, facilities which are considered to serve water-dependent uses, the piers, platforms, and docks proposed in the Harborview Wetland are, according to the officials and decision makers, decidedly non-water-dependent. Yet to myself, representatives of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, members of the Living Classrooms foundation, and the team working on the Harborview Wetland, the piers are absolutely water-dependent.

The piers allow access to the water for educational purposes, and the Aquarium and Living Classrooms have already considered region-wide youth educational programs for the site. In a letter committing their support and future involvement in the Harborview wetland project, Living Classrooms’ Vice President, Scott Raymond noted the potential of offering 110 students the opportunity to visit the wetland on any given day [Raymond 2012]. Furthermore, allowing residents to be engaged with the Harbor, to experience it up-close, raises public awareness about water quality issues and encourages a better understanding of the Harbor’s health and the importance of restoration projects. Then again, Naor could easily acquire the permits to build as many as 50 more boat slips and the accompanying floating docks in the same location and with roughly the same coverage as the proposed walkways, even though they would surely have a more adverse impact on the Harbor [Floating Wetlands for Baltimore Harbor?, Landscape Online 2012]. Considering that, are the piers which shall serve educational and social needs really as awful as the argument would suggest? Be honest.

It’s difficult not to be cynical and consider that officials and regulators might just be waiting for Naor and his team to give in; the regulators have already approved the wetland aspect of Naor’s proposal, but abandoning the piers is out of the question. Phil Lee, an associate at Moffatt & Nichol, an infrastructure firm specializing in the planning and design of water-related facilities and which is also involved in the Harborview Wetland project, explains that removing the piers from the wetland is akin to “putting up a park with a fence around it” [Lee 2012]. And so the team tolerantly waits for their next attempt to have the project approved. Until the permits are approved, however, the project will have no credibility and Naor and his team will have no basis upon which to secure funding. Baltimore should be grateful that Naor is not one to give up so easily, and that he and his team continue to fight for public access to water.

The Public Trust Doctrine protects the water’s edge, among other common resources, for “the benefit of all.” Yet our most precious waterfronts, those which are squeezed within densely populated cities, have largely been reserved for private commercial use. Traditionally functioning as ports for sending and receiving large cargo shipments, urban waterfronts have more recently been exploited for their ability to attract tourists. Waterfront real estate is therefore prized more for its high property value and the commercial potential it offers than for any purpose serving as a recreational amenity. Private business uses now invade the waterfront- snatching valuable land and blocking public access and waterfront views. In Baltimore now, the spaces directly above the water are being fought over. The waterfront is reserved for tourists, visitors, and anyone willing to spend money (although, as has already been confirmed, the water itself is beginning to detract from that market); what room does that leave for Baltimore’s residents? In this case, public access to the water would be encouraged and accommodated, yet decision-makers have spent over a year debating its approval. The project would improve the waterfront, but frivolous arguments have resulted in a lengthy delay of this wonderful revitalization opportunity. If the Baltimore Harbor is to be preserved for the benefit of all, as the Public Trust Doctrine would urge, then the Naor project is the ideal response and, when you think about it, the piers really aren’t the crisis they’ve been made out to be.

Naor and his partners contend that the Harbor is in such poor shape that it shouldn’t matter whether or not there are piers, that the officials should be more willing to experiment. And as researchers question if wetlands in open waters would even have much impact, a large experiment such as Naor’s project is needed to settle this uncertainty. Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, William Dennison, rationalizes the Baltimore Harbor is so degraded that anything which could improve the quality ought to be attempted. Dennison stated, simply, “We don’t have a lot to lose here”  [Wheeler 2012b].

As maddening as the political delay caused by nonissues has been, a light that’s beginning to shine on the horizon is a beacon of hope. On December 5, 2012, a meeting of delegates, congressmen and women, and interested parties ensued at the Moffat & Nichol office in Baltimore to discuss the future of the Naor proposal. In attendance was Delegate Maggie McIntosh, Chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, as well as Delegate Peter A. Hammen, a former member of the Environmental Matters Committee. The presence of officials who are often involved in such similar affairs, on top of the understanding that individuals from the offices of Senator Barbara Mikulski, Congressman John Sarbanes, and the Governor will soon be involved in the Harborview Wetland proposal, offers relief to Naor and his team as they face the coming legislative session. With support from these officials, it’s promising to think the proposal will finally move forward [Lee 2012].

Nonetheless, despite the delay, multiple organizations and businesses have expressed interest in the project and, even without the permits, there have already been conversations with potential donors. In addition to the National Aquarium and Living Classrooms, which have declared their support for the Harborview Wetland, other large Baltimore-based firms have also recognized that the floating wetlands will impact more than just environmental health and see them as an economic opportunity. As Naor had recognized, visitors are being deterred by the unattractive state of the Harbor’s waters, making it difficult for businesses to recover from the 2008 recession. If one man can see the potential of the wetlands, perhaps it’s worth investigating more. ‘”It’s a really gorgeous harbor and it’s a huge asset,” says Naor. “Us, as the keepers, we need to keep it safe. We need to work as hard as we can to clean the water.” If the Harborview Wetlands are approved, Naor sees potential to create as much as 10 acres of floating beds of rosemallow, sea lavender, and salt grass throughout all five marina’s he oversees. Naor explains, “Our goal is to clean the water and drop 10 acres of parks in the middle of the Inner Harbor” [Killar 2012].

[1] To be fair, the intended outcome will without-doubt produce economic benefits for the business owner, though his own benefits will be trivial compared to the those which Baltimore City as a whole shall reap.