Many architects have designed buildings that helped clean up Baltimore’s Inner Harbor renewal area over the years, but one team has created a structure that is intended to clean up the water itself, while serving as the city’s newest kinetic sculpture.
The Inner Harbor Water Wheel is an $800,000, solar-powered “trash interceptor” that picks up plastic bottles, foam cups, and other debris floating toward the harbor and Chesapeake Bay from a tributary, the Jones Falls River, and collects it for later disposal.
The floating device was conceived by the non profit Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which has a goal of making the Inner Harbor “swimmable and fishable” by 2020. According to its designers, the water wheel is capable of collecting 50,000 pounds of trash a day, objects that will not wind up in the harbor. With its prominent location along the city’s waterfront promenade and its distinctive shape, it also serves an educational purpose, reminding passersby that litter and other storm water runoff from upstream neighborhoods can mar the downtown waterfront.
“This is a new technology to solve an age old problem—trash in the Inner Harbor,” said Laurie Schwartz, the Partnership’s executive director. “The trouble is people who don’t behave.”
“It’s so easy to sit back and say the problems that the city faces are just too big,” added Michael Hankin, chairman of the group. “This is an effort to say there are things we can do.”
Established in 2005, the Partnership worked with other area stakeholders, including the Port of Baltimore, city agencies, Constellation Energy, the Living Classrooms Foundation, and the Abell Foundation. The design team was a collaboration of John Kellett and Daniel Chase of Clearwater Mills, which was responsible for the interceptor, and Steve Ziger and Michael Westrate of Ziger/Snead Architects, who designed the protective enclosure.
The water wheel is located near where the Jones Falls empties into the harbor, a heavily trafficked spot between the Pier Six concert pavilion and the Marriott Waterfront hotel. It replaced a smaller prototype that occupied the same spot in 2008 for eight months, which was not large enough to handle the amount of trash that flowed down the tributary.
The previous device, designed by Clearwater without Ziger/Snead, had an enclosure that was meant to evoke the mills farther north along the Jones Falls Valley. For the replacement, Ziger/Snead created a fabric canopy that is part seashell, part snail, part Conestoga wagon. “We actually did look at the Nautilus,” said Ziger.
The mechanism beneath the shell is 50 feet long, 30 feet wide, and weighs 100,000 pounds. Its galvanized metal wheel is 14 feet in diameter. Litter from the waterway is funneled toward a conveyor belt that picks it out of the water and deposits it into a dumpster that can be taken to a recycling facility.
The moving parts are powered by the current of the Jones Falls and stored energy from solar panels atop the canopy. It was designed to last 15 years or more. But clean harbor advocates say they would be happy if the time came when it was no longer needed.
Many people think most of the litter they see floating in the harbor comes from people along the shoreline throwing trash into the water, said Schwartz, but the bigger problem is caused by debris washing in from surrounding neighborhoods. The amount of trash can be reduced if people change their behavior, she said, but until public education and other measures make more of a difference, there will be a need for capture devices such as the Water Wheel. “Our goal is to put it out of business,” she said. “The hope is for the children of the future, who don’t have bad habits yet.”