In a presentation to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in March, Baltimore’s then acting director of the Department of Public Works (DPW) Matt Garbark said the Headworks Project will be “truly transformational.” DPW estimates the upgrades are expected to eliminate more than 80 percent of the volume of sewage that previously overflowed from the city’s aged sewer system.
“It’s one of many projects in our portfolio right now that shows the power of public infrastructure investments,” Garbark said. “
On May 10, the city held a formal ribbon-cutting for the project with community members, elected officials, and others to mark the milestone.
The city undertook the Headworks Project as part of its efforts to meet the requirements of a federal consent decree put in place in 2002 to ensure the city complies with the Clean Water Act. The consent decree was modified in 2017, after the city failed to meet the initial terms.
CBF has long been involved in advocating for the city to meet the requirements of the consent decree. We retained an expert to scrutinize the city’s plan to stop sewer overflows and regularly met with city officials to track progress. We were pleased when the city increased public participation opportunities and imposed an aggressive schedule to complete the Headworks Project.
Baltimore’s sewage overflows have long been a contentious issue throughout the Bay watershed, with watermen and other affected groups often urging the city and elected officials to fix the problem .
The new upgrades to the Back River wastewater plant are expected to solve a long-term problem that plagued Baltimore’s sewer infrastructure. The pipes leading into the plant were designed poorly when built more than 100 years ago. Those pipes used gravity to transport wastewater to the plant, but were susceptible to backups of up to 10 miles in wet weather. When too much water overloaded the antiquated system, the excess wastewater dumped into outflows on the Jones Falls upstream from Penn Station and flowed into the Baltimore Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.
These overflows have been significant–the city reported tens of millions of gallons of sewage overflows in 2020 and 2019, according to consent decree data posted on the city’s website.
However, the new headworks should solve the hydraulic issues that caused extensive backups. To do so, crews installed a new enlarged junction chamber, four 800-horsepower pumps, four 1,500-horsepower pumps, and two above-grade tanks with 36 million gallons of storage capacity.
Now, when wet weather causes heavy flows into the treatment plant, the excess sewer water drops into the junction chamber where it gets sucked up by the pumps into the plant or diverted into the holding tanks until the plant can treat the water.
“At the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, we were often frustrated with how long it took to upgrade this integral part of Baltimore’s sewer system, but we’re pleased to see this project come online,” said CBF Maryland Executive Director Josh Kurtz. “We’ll continue to monitor its effectiveness and ensure it works as city officials expect.”
The upgrades should also help prevent residential sewer overflows, which would send sewage up through toilets and create significant messes inside homes. CBF has worked with Baltimore residents to help them navigate city programs designed to refund the cost and time it took them to clean up homes fouled by sewage overflows.
While the Headworks Project will help improve water quality, especially in the area around Baltimore City, it’s just a small part of the overall Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Cities, counties, states, and the wide coalition of clean water advocates must continue to work together to incrementally reduce pollutants from all sources to restore the Chesapeake Bay and protect its natural resources.
A.J. Metcalf is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland Communications Coordinator.