A group working on the Harbor Splash event gets excited to jump in. Image: Waterfront Partnership

Urban Swimming Trend? DC to Hold “Splash” Following Baltimore’s Harbor Splash

Baltimore’s launch of this weekend’s Harbor Splash swimming event made big waves—even as some people said they’d never take a dip in the Inner Harbor, others were so interested that the limited swim spots sold out in ten minutes flat.

The Harbor Splash came about as a way for the city’s Waterfront Partnership to celebrate the strides made and raise awareness for continuing clean water efforts.

Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, formed in 2010 to combat the littered and polluted state of the harbor, set a goal of achieving a “swimmable, fishable” Baltimore Harbor. Some people remain skeptical, but today, several spots around the harbor are safe for swimming many days of the year.

Waterkeeper group Blue Water Baltimore released its annual Water Quality Report Card on Tuesday, noting that at multiple Inner Harbor sites, bacteria scores were the best they’ve been in 11 years. However, the 2023 Water Quality Report Card, which is an overall snapshot of many ecological health factors, gave the Patapsco River region, including the Baltimore Harbor and Middle Branch of the river, an “F” grade. The Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls watersheds, further upstream, did slightly better with a “D”.

Blue Water Baltimore says the city needs to invest in more stormwater infrastructure (like rain gardens), sewer infrastructure projects and maintenance, and to hold polluters accountable at the source.

While the city doesn’t encourage jumping into the harbor anytime you feel like it, swimming is safe under supervision. Among those putting their faith in this swimmable waterway are Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Maryland State Comptroller Brooke Lierman, local investment and real estate firm CEOs, and more yet to be announced.

A local watersports company is also sending a clear message that they believe in the clean future of Charm City’s waterway. Ultimate Watersports, the Chesapeake region’s largest stand-up paddleboard and kayak outfitter, is opening an Inner Harbor location.

It will be based at the Living Classrooms Foundation Marina in the Harbor East neighborhood, where visitors walking the brick Promenade can see turtles sunning themselves on many days.

“We’ve been in business for almost 40 years, but it was not until the launch of the Baltimore Blueway (a paddling trail in the city) and water quality data continued to significantly improve that we knew it was time to bring Ultimate Watersports to the Inner Harbor,” said company president Hal Ashman.

Ultimate Watersports will also serve as the safety management partner for Harbor Splash.

As the lucky 150 registrants (plus the lawmakers and corporate partners) get ready to cannonball into the Baltimore harbor from a floating platform, another urban, long-polluted waterway is just a week away from making its own big splash.

The Anacostia River’s health has seen a big turnaround, too. Swimming in the river has been banned since 1971. But in recent years, the DC Citizen Science Water Quality Monitoring Program has tracked progress and found low bacteria levels at key Anacostia River sites. That led to a 2018 amendment allowing permitted swim events.

The Anacostia River Trail encourages paddling on the river, but until now, swimming in it has been a no-no. Photo: Anacostia Watershed Society

Last year, the Anacostia Riverkeeper planned its first organized swim in this Washington, D.C. river. The Anacostia River Splash, first slated for July 2023, had to be canceled because heavy rains caused a sewage overflow that rendered the water quality unsafe for the event.

While the setback was discouraging, the Riverkeeper was confident that DC’s Clean Rivers Project, which was in its final stages, would reopen the opportunity for an Anacostia swim in 2024. Sure enough, the event’s new date is set for June 29th, 2024, about 53 years after the last time anyone was allowed to swim in the river.

The Anacostia Riverkeeper says it’s a rare chance for people to swim in, and reconnect with, the river. Participants will have a designated time slot to swim briefly in the water off the Kingman Island Dock next to the Benning Road Bridge. Like Baltimore’s Harbor Splash, the event is sold out.

And the riverkeeper organization seems confident the Splash will be a success—it’s advertised as the “first annual” swim event.