Whose Poop?: A new project measures sewage and dog waste entering the Jones Falls from stormwater

City Paper

A slight scent of detergent is in the air as Alice Volpitta, Water Quality Manager for the clean-water advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore (BWB), takes a few careful steps down the top of a poured-concrete slope on the banks of the Jones Falls, just above where the river descends underground near Amtrak’s Penn Station. A steady stream of soapy-smelling water courses down the slope out of a pipe that’s runs underneath Falls Road, and as Volpitta approaches the pipe’s mouth, called an outfall, a car drives by. 

Boom! Boom!

Two amplified booms echo out of the pipe as the car passes, prompting Volpitta to exclaim, “That’s terrifying!” as she stoops down to fill a plastic bottle with water coming out of the pipe. She stands up, caps the bottle, and says, “OK, that’s it, and then we just keep it on ice.” 

Volpitta is in hip-waders, demonstrating for City Paper how water samples are collected in BWB’s efforts to monitor pollution in Baltimore’s stormwater system, the underground pipes that convey fluids washing off the city’s surfaces into its streams and the harbor. With her is Wolf Pecher, a University of Baltimore science professor with an abiding interest in disease-causing pathogens, and David Flores, BWB’s Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, who oversees the nonprofit’s focus on using the law to pursue cleaner water. 

The three have many war stories from monitoring outfalls along this stretch of the Jones Falls. At this one, sampling has found pretty consistent evidence of optical brighteners, a detergent additive, indicating that washwater is being discharged somewhere up the pipe. But elsewhere, they find stormwater outfalls regularly contaminated with fecal matter, since testing the samples turns up evidence of sewage. 

The question is, whose poop is it? If it’s human waste, then that’s strong evidence that the city’s sewage system is leaking into its stormwater system, and the two are supposed to be completely separate, with sewage piped to treatment plants, not the city’s streams and harbor. If it’s not human waste, it’s likely dog poop—which, as any city resident can attest, is routinely left on sidewalks and streets, where that which doesn’t get stuck to the soles of peoples’ shoes gets washed away over time by rain or snow melt. The problem has been that distinguishing how much is sewage and how much is dog waste requires advanced molecular-biological analysis that isn’t widely available.  

Now, though, thanks to a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Pecher’s in charge of trying to solve the human-versus-dog poop conundrum. Starting this fall and continuing through next year, he and BWB’s team will take samples from five stormwater outfalls that empty into the Jones Falls’ Mill Corridor, which runs roughly between the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant in Hampden-Woodberry downstream to Penn Station. By applying a technology called “quantitative polymerase chain reaction” to detect and quantify DNA molecules, using equipment housed at the University System of Maryland’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology under the expert hand of University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science biologist Eric Schott, they’ll conduct a cutting-edge form of what’s called “microbial source tracking” to determine how much of the samples’ bacteria are from humans versus dogs. 

“I’ve been at community meetings where they’ve had public officials there, saying this outfall has this level of bacteria and this level of ammonia,” Schott recalls, to explain why piecing together the human-versus-dog poop puzzle is useful, “and the guys will say, ‘Well we don’t know that it’s sewage because it could be from this source or this source or this source.’ And it could be. It’s highly unlikely that it is, but you can’t say that it’s not. And I think some of what Wolf’s project has for us, is that we could take that situation and say, ‘No, it is sewage.’”

Pecher stresses that the study’s data is meant to inform decision-making at the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), which is responsible for keeping the sewage and stormwater systems separate. 

“My dream,” he says, “is that the city then works together with us for a particular project: identify an outfall, take that technology to find the sewage leaks, fix the leaks, and then as a result see the reductions in those bacteria—which is likely to happen, but has not been done, so we cannot say.” He adds that the results will “also give the city a good set of data to argue with people like the EPA to say, ‘Look, this is a good technology, this is a good tool, this is a good best-management practice to deal with these high amounts of indicator bacteria,’ and so use them in their compliance programs, rather than just repairing the obvious pipe breaks.”

DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher, asked to provide comment about the project, said in an email that “our person who knows the most on this is on bereavement leave” and “we really need to wait until she returns to get you the best answers.” He did not respond to a follow-up email that asked, “Does DPW find the possibility of obtaining reliable data about the human- versus dog-pathogen content of what’s coming out of stormwater outfalls, which this demonstration project aims to provide, to be potentially helpful in locating and prioritizing sewer-system repairs?”

Pecher, though, believes DPW “is very much interested in this study,” and says that DPW director Rudy Chow “wants the city to be proactive, not reactive, on these issues, and this is part of being proactive: taking an outfall, looking for these things.”

“If DPW wants to be honest,” adds Schott, “they can say, ‘OK, it is ours, and now we need to fix it.’ So they can take it and make good use of that information. Or if there’s fecal-indicator bacteria that’s coming from another source besides a sewage pipe, then they don’t dig up something or do an investigation and spend their money chasing a red herring, and they can say, ‘OK, we’re not wasting our effort trying to fix a situation that isn’t our doing.’ The science is now at a solid-enough place that you can apply that to these municipal systems and feel pretty confident about what you get, so this is probably the way things are going to go.”

If it turns out that dog waste is a significant driver of stormwater fecal pollution, Schott continues, “you look at what kind of behaviors can you try to promote among people to clean up after their pets. And I think that saying to people, ‘There’s bacteria there, but we don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s a good idea to clean up after your dog,’ is different from saying, ‘There’s this much fecal contamination in the system from dogs, therefore clean up after your dog.’ My sense is that having a little more certainty about the source of the bacteria will help change behaviors. Because if you take away the uncertainty, I think then the response becomes easier.”

Volpitta, Flores, and Pecher continue their tour, working upstream from the outfall nearest to Penn Station. Across from the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, five manhole covers marked “Sanitary Sewer” are clustered along the road bed, and Flores points out smears of dark spots on the street and adjacent bike trail that runs next to the Jones Falls. 

“That’s grease, from grease balls that came out with the sewage from those manholes, and it’s turned black from age,” he explains. “The sewage comes out and washes out here, on this berm on the trail after these big storms, and it’s just pooled wastewater all up and down this trail, and people walk through it, bicycle through it, push strollers through it. They think it’s just stormwater.”

“I think it’s just not in people’s paradigm,” says Volpitta. “They don’t expect sewage to be there.” 

“I love all the different plants that we find right here, at this outfall,” Flores says, pointing to a place where the bike trail has eroded and caved in near what he calls “OF-67,” an “illegal outfall from the city’s sewer system that EPA knows about, but is allowing.” The diversity of plants here “are growing from all the seeds that come up out of the sewer when it overflows,” Flores explains. “I mean, I’ve found marijuana plants here before. There’s tomato plants, usually. A couple of years ago we took some city officials, including the then-director of DPW, on a tour of some of these sewage issues that we were concerned with, and there were like marijuana plants everywhere here,” he continues, laughing. 

Volpitta points to a tomato plant with two over-ripe tomatoes growing on it and says, “the soil is nutrient-rich, because of the sewage,” to which Pecher adds, “it’s fertilizer.” 

Upstream on the western bank of the Jones Falls, a pipe protrudes from the river bank. It’s what Flores calls “the chimp outfall,” and it’s a good example of how sometimes the main challenge of “outfall sampling is just logistics,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just really hard to actually access the discharge that you suspect of being contaminated.”

Though today no fluids are flowing out of the pipe, it’s been dubbed the “chimp outfall” because, Volpitta explains, “we were overwhelmed with the smell of the monkey house” during a visit when “it just started gushing, and it was definitely contaminated.” Pecher adds that, “the only thing up there” that the outfall drains “is the zoo—though there are a lot of sewer lines up there, too, so” the Maryland Zoo “may not be the culprit.” 

“The city did do some work on it,” Pecher continues, “and it has really improved, because before it was constantly shooting out sewage, and now it only does it once or twice a day—we know once a day, for sure, pretty much around now, 10 to 11 in the morning.” 

In order to sample the “chimp outfall” for the human-pathogen study, Pecher says, “because of our own personal health, we probably have to have suits.” Volpitta clarifies: “Tyvek suits. Because of the way it is, it splashes. It spews out and just splashes everywhere.”

“I have a face shield,” Pecher adds, since “you don’t want to take risks.”

In most cases, though, outfall monitoring does not require full-body protection with face shields. Usually, hip-waders and a long pole with a sampling bottle attached (for the outfalls that are difficult to access) will suffice.

A key component of Pecher’s project is community involvement, and he’s enlisted the help of developer David Tufaro to provide space in his Mill No. 1 development for area school students to come and “become aware of what they have in the Jones Falls, so they can learn, don’t trash your streets and screw it up.” BWB is key in this respect, too, due to its growing Adopt-A-Stream program, which enlists volunteers to monitor stretches of urban streams all over the city, checking for and reporting various forms of pollution. “We are trying to get a bunch of people in the Mill Corridor area to become part of our program,” Volpitta says, “and are hoping they really get involved and do stream watching on pollution issues.” 

Among the community people Pecher has been collaborating with is Claudia Diamond, a lawyer and University of Baltimore director of academic support who has been organizing the Mill Corridor community—a place where, she says, “many neighborhoods have a piece of it, but there was no particular one that took ownership”—to take a greater interest in finding ways to promote the Jones Falls as a destination. “I’m just kind of a matchmaker,” Diamond says, “trying to work with stakeholders to provide support, organize clean ups, do outreach to schools, and get volunteers out, and I’m very excited about Wolf’s grant to track the fecal contamination in the Jones Falls, the dog poop or human poop.”

“Is this project going to eliminate the sewage problem?” Pecher asks, rhetorically. “No. Because that is something that the city has to do. However, we can give the community the data to tell the city, ‘Listen, we do have a problem here, it’s not a sewage break yet, but there are indications that it’s high sewage contamination.’ And generally, when Blue Water Baltimore reports some potential sewage leak, the city’s pretty good in following up and checking it out.”

“By supplementing the city’s efforts now with academic researchers, who can quantify just how much of a problem it really is with the greatest level of certainty there is available, and with Adopt-A-Stream volunteers, which is really how issues come to our attention,” Flores concludes, “we’re definitely going to make an impact. But when it comes to real systemic impact, it’s going to require the city ratcheting up their capacity to fix the system. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”

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