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Solar, Wi-Fi-Enabled Water Wheel Pulls Trash From Baltimore's Inner Harbor

A new environmental project in Baltimore demonstrates the challenges faced by government, the private sector and the public when they collaborated to accomplish a common goal.

Since its launch in May, Baltimore’s new water wheel has pulled more than 50 tons of garbage and debris out of the city’s inner harbor.

Built and operated by a local entrepreneur, funded by a non-profit business improvement district, and supported by the city, the water wheel, or mill, is now seen as something of a success after years of testing and operational growing pains. And it’s now getting a lot of attention. After less than two months, a YouTube video demonstrating what the mill can do (at left) is nearing 1 million views, and cities around the world are looking to the project for guidance on how to keep their own waterways clean.

The machine looks like something out of the steam age, and at full power, it can collect five tons of trash per hour. Solar panels power water pumps that drive a water wheel, which pulls a conveyer belt that gathers the trash. Soon, the machine will also be equipped with webcams so people can watch the trash accumulate in real-time, and a remote control device so operators can make adjustments from their smartphones. It’s all energy put toward a much-needed effort, to hear the locals tell it.

The city of Baltimore pointed to Adam Lindquist, project manager for the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore (WPB), as the appropriate contact for the water wheel project. And Lindquist explained that the mill is just one of many projects the business improvement district participates in to meet the goals of the Healthy Harbor Initiative. The inner harbor, he said, is known for being full of garbage.

“After large rain events, there’s tons of trash in the harbor,” he said. “The harbor can literally be coated in trash; it looks like you could walk across the harbor there’s so much trash and debris.”

One of his organization’s goals, supported by the city, is to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. Today, the harbor is safe for swimming about 40 percent of the time, he explained, and by 2020, they could get that number up to 70 or 80 percent. As it is, though, the city can’t promote the harbor as a place where people could feel safe swimming, he said.

Getting the trash mill installed as it is today required support from several groups. The business improvement district, which is comprised of many businesses that operate from alongside the harbor, saw the value in keeping the harbor clean and provided funding, as did the Maryland Port Administration, for the $850,000 project.

The project itself was originally conceived in 2008 by local John Kellett, but his idea wouldn’t have gone far without support from the city. WPB, the city and Kellett all have a good working relationship today, but they went through some operational challenges, Lindquist said.

“The water wheel has been through a couple different administrations in the city now and I think initially they were skeptical, as most people might be, about a new technology,” he said. “The city has been a bit slower to come around to new technologies and innovative solutions. We certainly have gotten there in the end, but I wouldn’t frame the city as having led the water wheel initiative or having led any seed funding for this. We’ve had to work a lot with the city to get them to accept this as a solution. It’s hard to get them to think outside their normal operations.”

The current mill was preceded by a smaller prototype, built in 2008 and decommissioned in 2011. Kellett and WPB found funding for the mill, about $375,000, but it wasn’t until the project was completed and demonstrated as working that the city was willing to get involved with the project --but it finally did, ultimately buying the mill from Kellett. And before the mill was decommissioned, there were moments of tension and frustration between the partners.

In 2011, the Baltimore Sun reported that the wheel had been prone to breakdowns, leading to lapses in operation for most of the year, and reports show that Kellett and the city didn’t seem to agree on how to manage and operate the project.

After the wheel was decommissioned, it showed. The harbor was full of trash again, and WPB resolved to build a larger mill that could better handle the amount of trash that was coming through. They raised the funding that built the mill that operates today.

They’re finishing up construction now and entering full operation, said Kellett, who also is the founder of Clearwater Mills. Kellett explained that overall, he’s had a good relationship with the city, but that there were some difficulties as the two sides tried to accommodate one another.

“The difficulty with the city is you get a lot of support at the high level but that doesn’t always translate into performance in the field,” Kellett said. They began by getting support from the Mayor’s office, which liked the idea, he said, but that support weakened the further they went down the chain of command.

Keeping the prototype operational meant clearing out the collected trash and debris constantly. The city agreed to provide 24 hours garbage barge service, Kellett said, but what they actually got was service between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. that sometimes took hours to arrive, and it wasn’t enough.

“They were trying to fit us in as a new part to an existing program,” Kellett said, referring to the city’s trash and skimmer boats that were already used to pull trash from the harbor. It might be unfair conjecture, Kellett said, but he believes the operators of the existing program saw the mill as a threat to their jobs.

“There was an element within the city that I think felt somewhat threatened by the technology,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said for driving around the harbor in a boat as a job. It’s not too bad. If they go with the new program and they don’t get to do that anymore, you may not think that’s a good trade-off.”

The consequence was that the prototype didn’t achieve quite the success it could have, Kellett said. “The performance of the prototype was unfairly judged because the program for operating and maintaining it wasn’t developed well and therefore it looked like it wasn’t performing, when really the program for using it was the problem,” he said. “The lesson that came out of that is […] when dealing with a large municipal department, you have to adapt to their program as much as trying to make them adapt to your program. You have to work with the existing parameters or you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.”

Today, the working relationship with the city and their partners is good, Kellett said, and now they’re just working on getting all the technology online. He doesn’t know when everything will be finished, he said, but the webcams could go live in the next couple weeks, allowing anyone to check on what sort of unpleasant objects the mill dredges up.

They also are installing a Wi-Fi enabled relay board, using the wireless connection of a nearby hotel, to allow remote operation of the mill. There will be controls to unjam the feeder, as logs and branches sometimes block trash flow, and controls to adjust the power of the mill. The mill has nine control pumps. In mild, sunny weather, they just use one, but in a rainstorm or if there's a lot of trash, they use more pumps. And if they need extra power to pull up a log or something heavy, they can turn on all nine pumps, Kellett explained.

National media attention and a viral video on YouTube now have cities from around the world asking Kellett to build trash mills in their waterways. “We’re getting inquiries from a lot of places,” he said. “We’re having meetings with people in doing some feasibility studies but we’re not quite to the stage where we have any contracts. This has generated a tremendous amount of attention and we’re getting inquiries not only from states as far away as Hawaii, but countries as far away as India and Singapore and Argentina and Mexico. There’s a need for this.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.