If you want to see the future of cleanup efforts on the Chesapeake Bay, take a good look at Baltimore.

Stop laughing.

At first, you might see 92 square miles of aging urban space that few recognize as an environmental role model. Look closer, though, and you’ll find the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, where Maryland lawmakers, state agency leaders and environmentalists see the best path to a healthier bay.

Reimagine Middle Branch, a community-led effort to redevelop 11 miles of the waterway south of downtown, includes $56 million raised so far to rebuild a network of wetlands that will absorb rainfall and help prevent flooding. On Thursday, a nonprofit added a program to promote sustainable fishing.

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If legislation working through the General Assembly wins approval, Middle Branch would be replicated statewide. The Whole Watershed Act would select five watersheds starting in July, and pour millions into improving everything from water quality to habitat diversity to public access.

If it works, and hopes are extraordinarily high among the coalition of supporters behind the idea, this new approach would bring significant changes — in five years. As the bay cleanup heads toward missing its 2025 nutrient and stormwater runoff targets by a lot, this timeframe sounds impossibly quick.

“They are really far along in this very concept,” said state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an Annapolis Democrat and a lead author of the legislation. “How do we have an entire watershed plan with 20 or 30 component subproject parts that all have a different benefit — public water access, carbon sequestration, wetlands restoration, which you know, doubles as climate resilience?”

Elfreth is a former chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, but finding the solution in Baltimore came as a surprise to her.

“We had dreamed up this bill before I even got a deep dive on that project, and then I happen to meet with the folks doing it and it was like, ‘Holy, holy crap, this is exactly what we were envisioning.’”

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The Whole Watershed Act grew out of the Comprehensive Evaluation of System Response, or CESR. The 2023 review of policy and science confirmed what most of us knew — 40 years of cleanup failed to reach hoped-for goals. The authors found the technology doesn’t even exist to eliminate deep-water nutrient pollution and oxygen “dead zones,” a primary focus up to now.

Instead, the report suggested going small-scale, focusing on reducing runoff that pollutes rivers, streams and shallow bays. The idea was that if you clean up the tributaries flowing into the Chesapeake, the main stem of the bay would follow.

The legislation, co-sponsored by state Sen. Guy Guzzone of Howard County and paired with a House bill by Del. Sara Love of Montgomery County, is supported by the three state agencies that lead bay cleanup: environment, natural resources and agriculture.

If approved, the act would work like this.

A panel made up of state, local and private sector experts would pick five watersheds. The final mix would be chosen to ensure a diverse selection — suburban; rural; economically or environmentally challenged; or located along the border with neighboring states — and to have the greatest chance of success in mind.

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Once the watersheds are chosen, the state would lead efforts to create individual plans by holding discussions with local governments, community residents and others. Starting in July 2025, the state would redirect $20 million a year in state and federal funds already dedicated to bay restoration to the five picks through 2030. Local governments, which would submit the waterways for consideration, would match some of those funds.

If the individual goals for each waterway are met, the 5-by-5 approach would be expanded to five more watersheds. Over time, the growing number of improved rivers, creeks and small bays would feed cleaner water into the wider Chesapeake, create breeding grounds for critical species and make living on the water a more widely enjoyed benefit.

“Right now, a lot of our bay restoration attempts have been random acts of restoration,” Love told a House committee last week. “We have a stream restoration here, upland works here, stormwater work there. This bill seeks to take an innovative approach and take a comprehensive approach to restoration by setting up a five-year, five-watershed pilot program.”

The project is so big, so potentially transformational, that critics have a lot to say.

Losers are likely to feel the sting. Taking $20 million out of current spending will mean smaller projects and watersheds not chosen will have to scramble for funds.

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During a Senate Environment, Energy and Education Committee hearing on the bill Tuesday, one Eastern Shore lawmaker questioned the workability of the idea because coastal bays may have been added to the bill as an afterthought.

“I want to ensure that whatever is going on with this bill is not going to negatively impact the funding and the work that the Maryland Coastal Bays [Program] has been doing,” state Sen. Mary Beth Carozza said.

Rural lawmakers are worried that Department of Agriculture funding for the five watersheds will divert money from farms in their districts. Stream restoration, likely to be a central part of the five watershed plans, was attacked by critics concerned about repeating projects that did more harm than good in Howard County.

To address that, the bill includes the first licensing standards for stream restoration professionals. Elfreth has worked with state Sen. Katie Fry Hester to go further, adding a set of guardrails to prevent projects from clear-cutting existing trees, or bringing in invasive species — changes that restoration professionals opposed as unnecessary.

When Liam O’Meara, president of an Annapolis restoration company, joined other professionals to urge speedy passage of the bill without any changes, Hester shot back.

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“I would just like to tell the stream restoration industry that I am shocked by what you just said,” the Howard County Democrat said. “We have worked together for the past two months to codify existing practices. … I don’t know what my question is quite yet, but I am just shocked you would come here and say that there are no guardrails required and that speed is the answer.”

Problems dogging bay cleanup from the start, such as a preference for technobabble, are so deeply ingrained they seem likely to carry over to any new approach.

When Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Dave Goshorn acknowledged he couldn’t say what the term “eight-digit” means — it’s a hydrology term the bill uses as selection criteria — Vice Chair Cheryl Kagan of Montgomery County urged dropping scientific gobbledygook if state officials hope to get past public malaise about cleaning up the bay.

“The definition of this is incomprehensible, and I’ve read it three times,” she said.

We’ve been here before.

A decade ago, when environmentalists were urging the adoption of a “rain tax” to provide funding for rebuilding streambeds torn apart by stormwater runoff across Maryland, they said changes in water quality would be visible in five years.

Then the underlying law was weakened, most counties scaled back and the results have been far less than promised.

Still, there are encouraging signs this could be different.

Next month, Reimagine Middle Branch will add another piece to its holistic puzzle — combining fishing with environmental research and cleanup.

The Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative said Thursday it will launch the Reel Rewards program in April, paying $30 for every invasive fish pulled out of the water. Northern snakehead, blue catfish and flathead catfish compete with native species, often pushing them out of a waterway completely.

The program will collect data on who is fishing in the waterway, already believed to be Asian, Latino and Black anglers who normally don’t get input into environmental initiatives. But it also will record what they are catching and the health of the fish landed — all information that could benefit the science driving restoration efforts.

“There’s a community of fishermen on the Middle Branch,” Executive Director Donzell Brown said. “And they can tell us who they are, but also what they’re catching.”

Reimagine Middle Branch, created by the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership and funded by grants from nearby Horseshoe Casino plus federal and state funds, will launch its first wetlands restoration next month near the century-old Hanover Street Bridge. Developers already are looking to transform the shoreline with new homes and retail and commercial districts such as Baltimore Peninsula, the future home of Under Armour.

Executive Director Brad Rogers predicted there will be visible improvements along the entire waterway well within the five-year timeframe being discussed in Annapolis.

“In three years,” he said, “there will be a major transformation.”

Fishing in Baltimore isn’t something I’ve ever wanted to do, given its history of industrial pollution and urban runoff. But it fits perfectly with the Whole Watershed Act.

“We’ve got to try something new,” Elfreth said. “And if not now, when?”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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