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Every year, stormwater runoff carries tons of trash and debris from the streets and streams of the Jones Fall watershed down into the mouth of the Jones Falls stream and out into the Baltimore Harbor. “I was tired of always hearing tourists say ‘ugh, this harbor’s disgusting’,” says Water Wheel co-founder John Kellett. “I thought, there’s got to be a better way than collecting trash on our front doorstep.” After a successful prototype and securing the support of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, the world’s first Water Wheel was constructed in just seven months with a crew of less than four men.

Related: Human Debris: Houston’s Trash-Filled Waterways Provide Fodder for Sculpture

Here’s how it works: two orange booms help funnel debris towards the Water Wheel, where spring-loaded leaf rakes intercept the trash and push it onto a moving conveyer belt which empties out into a 16 yard dumpster, located on top of a floating dock. Once the dumpster is full, the dock is detached, hooked up to a boat, and then taken to a RESCO waste-to-energy plant, where the trash is incinerated and turned into electrical energy. The solar-powered pumps move 20,000 gallons of water an hour onto the rotating waterwheel that turns the conveyer belt.

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In addition to cleaning up the harbor, the Water Wheel also provides other benefits. The constant rotation of the waterwheel puts much needed oxygen back into the water, helping to attract schools of fish and improve habitat conditions and water quality. The trash collector also removes organic waste, which if left to decompose, causes oxygen depletion and releases ammonia. As a project of the Healthy Harbor Living Laboratory, the Water Wheel also serves to educate people about stormwater management and the Inner Harbor.

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“Baltimore will soon pass a trash TMDL (total maximum daily load) or ‘pollution diet,’ that will legally require the city to remove a certain amount of trash from the water bodies a year,” says Adam Lindquist, Healthy Harbor Manager. “Our hope is to put the Water Wheel out of business.” While the Water Wheel will be a permanent fixture of Baltimore for now, there are talks of adding another one to the mouth of Washington D.C.’s trash-clogged Anacostia River. You can check out more pictures of the amazing Water Wheel in our gallery!

+ Clearwater Mills

+ Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore

Images © Lucy Wang for Inhabitat