Cleaning Up the Harbor

Aug. 22, 2014
A self-powered waterwheel captures trash & debris from Baltimore’s harbor

About the author: Bob Ferguson is a consultant in water and wastewater product safety, certification, analysis and treatment, and is a frequent author on water and environmental topics. Ferguson can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @Ferguson9806.

I am quickly getting attached to my newly adopted home of Baltimore. I moved here about two years ago after taking on a new position and have quickly fallen in love with “Charm City.” 

Baltimore has many attractions and great neighborhoods that make it a popular destination for tourists, meetings and conventions, but none is more famous than Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This extension of the Chesapeake Bay that reaches into the center of the city, and was historically the home of shipbuilders and seafaring traders (the Port of Baltimore remains one of the busiest ports on the East Coast), is now the home of popular restaurants, museums, festivals and events, as well as beautiful waterfront views. Many of you undoubtedly have fond memories of visits to the Inner Harbor.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, however, was not always the clean, enjoyable place it is today. In the 1990s, the water in the harbor was highly polluted, and it was not unusual to have huge heaps of trash covering the shoreline from one end of the harbor to the other, especially after a heavy rain. 

Over the past 20 years, a coalition of city and state governments, local businesses and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has made tremendous progress in cleaning up the harbor, and the goal is to keep it that way. A new trash-collecting waterwheel, known as the Water Wheel Trash Inceptor (WWTI), may help to reach that goal.

Skimming Trash & Debris

The WWTI is pretty much what the name suggests. It is a large combination waterwheel and conveyor belt that is designed to skim trash and other debris from the surface of the water. Two floating orange booms stretch between the two piers that lie on either bank of the Jones Falls River inlet, capture debris in the water and funnel them into the device. At the mouth of the waterwheel, a series of automated “rakes” moves debris onto a conveyor belt that deposits it into a dumpster. When full, the dumpster, which is attached to a floating barge, is towed to shore and emptied.  

Small trash-collecting boats have long been spotted in the harbor skimming off various floating debris, but the WWTI will be stationary at a point in the harbor where the Jones Falls River—a tributary with a watershed that covers most of Baltimore County—empties storm water into the harbor, bringing with it tons of trash and debris. Many people think the trash that finds its way into the harbor is from tourists and boaters who throw litter into the water; however, most of it is brought by storm water runoff, particularly following heavy rain events. The waterwheel is positioned at this inlet and is designed to capture up to 50,000 lb of debris on a daily basis.

A Self-Powered Device

The WWTI also is completely self-powered. Under normal operation, the inceptor uses the river current to power its conveyer belts and sifting mechanisms. Studies completed prior to the installation of the inceptor showed that the normal flow of the river was more than sufficient to power the unit. Because most of the debris that flows from the Jones Falls River comes in through storm water runoff following heavy rains, the river current is conveniently highest when the inceptor needs the most power. On days when the river current is lower than needed, the unit is equipped with solar panels on its roof to power the waterwheel. The solar panels power a water pump that lifts water to the waterwheel and keeps it moving. The panels also recharge the system’s batteries so it can keep working on cloudy days.  

The waterwheel was designed by Clearwater Mills LLC and paid for by funding from the Maryland Port Administration and Constellation Energy, and is operated and maintained by an NGO known as the Waterfront Partnership, which plans to fund its operating costs through donations or its own operating budget.

Does the waterwheel work? According to the sponsor of the WWTI initiative, Healthy Harbor Baltimore (, on Friday, June 13 alone, more than 9 tons of debris was removed by the device. Since May 16, when it was first placed into operation, more than 50 tons of trash and debris have been removed that otherwise would have floated into the Inner Harbor.

The WWTI is located adjacent to Pier 6 and next to the Baltimore Marriott Harborside. Next time you are in town, I recommend that you stop by and see it. A self-powered device that will remove thousands of tons of debris from the Inner Harbor is an attraction that you will not want to miss.

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About the Author

Bob Ferguson

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