Do you remember the iconic 1970s commercial of the crying Native American, paddling his canoe through a polluted river? It’s no secret that garbage and litter in our waterways has been an issue in U.S. cities for decades. Trash and debris have an impact on the visual landscape and create an environmental hazard to our ecosystems. I think he’d be proud of the simple and innovative structure in Baltimore that has proved useful to help clean up some of the trash and litter in the waterways (see the recent NPR story).
Before May 2014, Baltimore was just one city whose harbor was cluttered with trash and debris caused by runoff from the Jones Falls River. Originally, the city collected the trash using crab nets – costing them a lot of time without making much of an impact.
Then an idea came to John Kellett, a frequent passerby of the trash-laden harbor. He designed a water wheel, (which some say resembles a combination spaceship/covered wagon wheel) which would collect trash that flowed from the mouth of the Jones Falls River using power from storm runoff. Now the water wheel has collected over 40 tons of trash from the Baltimore harbor since it began turning in May. Talk about taking out the trash!
The success that the water wheel has brought to Baltimore, I hope, is a sign of more exciting things to come in the world of environmental innovation and design. I believe these results have the ability to create positive change in not only water pollution cleanup, but also other city issues.
Now I understand that not all cities are the same and not all rivers are the same, but the simple ingenuity of the water wheel is an inspiration on ways we can keep our collective water clean. Additionally, experimenting with water wheels in other cities could spur greater action and green innovation. Especially after June’s recognition as World Oceans Month, it’s clear that water systems are interconnected and don’t recognize man-designated boundaries.
Since the water wheel has cut down the manpower needed to collect debris from the harbor, Baltimore and other cities could use this newly recovered manpower for other city improvement projects. City cleanup doesn’t have to end with the water. There are still parks and streets littered with cigarette butts, paper napkins and plastic bottles. With water pollution under control, we may be able to focus our attention elsewhere.
Although the Baltimore water wheel hasn’t solved its trash problem 100 percent, it has certainly made an impact on those who cleaned it up by hand before. Unique in its design, the water wheel shows that we are moving in the right direction towards cleaner, trash-free water. All it takes is one successful project to open up a new world of environmental water innovation.