Graduate students in Brian Davis’ landscape architecture class learn about municipal dredging operations near the Patapsco River and the Baltimore Harbor in Maryland. They are aiming to find new uses for dredged material.

Students dredge up eco solutions for Baltimore Harbor

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Jeff Tyson

A dozen Cornell graduate students will offer environmental solutions after visiting the Baltimore Harbor and Maryland’s Patapsco River Oct. 26-28 to study how 1.5 million cubic yards of sediment pulled out of the navigation channels gets processed annually. The class task: Find eco-friendly uses for the dredged material.

This is the first time that professionals or students have wrestled with finding environmental uses for dredged material from harbor navigation channels on a large scale.

“Rather than be treated as a waste product, this material could ameliorate ecosystems or urban parks. It potentially could improve degraded wetlands in the middle branch of the Patapsco River or get used to construct storm surge or sea level rise protections for vulnerable communities,” said Thackston Crandall, MLA ’18. “We are seeking possible interventions that lie in the power of mud.”

The Port of Baltimore is part of a complex estuary where legacies of labor, innovation and ecological justice overlap with contemporary issues of public health and rising seas, said Brian Davis, assistant professor of landscape architecture, in his syllabus for Public Sediment: Remaking the Role of Mud in Baltimore.

Last spring, Maryland’s Department of the Environment issued guidance for innovative and beneficial use of the dredged harbor mud, said Davis. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan affirmed those guidelines with an executive order last June. This new regulatory guidance has made it possible to consider beneficial uses of sediment dredged from the harbor for the first time.

Maryland – aiming to become a zero-waste state – is the first state looking for alternative uses for sediment. “Think mud – but with a civic purpose – to support the life of the city,” said Davis, a fellow in Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

“We are all new at figuring out how use this mud,” said Davis. “It might be to renew parks or use it in ways we have yet to imagine. The graduate design students in landscape architecture are in the business of ecological and civic innovation in the built environment, so they have some of the necessary tools to tackle a new problem like this.”

The Cornell students are working with Mahan Rykiel Associates, a Baltimore landscape architecture firm, and the Maryland Port Administration, to suggest clear fixes for this muddy issue. The students gave presentations to industry experts Oct. 27 and toured the area’s Masonville, Cox Creek and Seagirt dredged material containment facilities.

Cox Creek is about 102 acres, outlined by a three-story dike wall, strengthened with a rocky wall and filled with dredge. “I felt I was transported to a different place entirely,” said Katherine Goodrich, MLA ’18. “It was a vast, strange, foreign landscape – essentially a massive bowl filled with sediment and pockets of water.”

Finding solutions takes time. The students learned that the dredged mud oxidizes from just sitting there, lowering its pH level from about 7.5 to 3.5 – too acidic to use in marshes, said Goodrich.

Simply keeping the mud contained is untenable, because it continually builds up. “In 20 or 30 years, this facility will be buried by another five stories or more of densely packed clay,” said Tess Ruswick, MLA ’18. “Visitors will come to stand high above the waters, on the collected and consolidated ground of 50 years of material washed down the creeks into the Patapsco.”

After formal tours, Veronica Chan, Yuting Liu, Daisy Hoyt and Zeynep Goksel, all MLA ’18, hired a boat to navigate Curtis Creek, the Patapsco River, Wagner’s Point and Fairfield, and toured under the Francis Scott Key Bridge to observe containment facilities from the water.

Boat operator Casey Beers, an expert on the Baltimore Harbor and the Patapsco River areas, kept the students close to the shoreline, explained the water dynamics and showed them real-time water data. “The boat trip was a novel and useful way to study the land-water intersection and gain a new perspective of the land,” said Chan.

The students have since returned to the studio to develop their final presentations on Dec. 4 and their final class submissions Dec. 11.


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Blaine Friedlander