Some ways to help our ill neighbor


February 27, 1993|By TOM HORTON

Nancy Linthicum, 9, of Ellicott City, writes that she is conducting "an independent investigation on pollution," and wishes to know:

* What is the Chesapeake Bay's worst pollution?

* What can people do to prevent it, and will that cause other problems?

* What can a fourth-grader do?

Nancy, the daughter of a Sun editor, asks good questions for someone of any age. But I'm not surprised; today's children know more about pollution and the environment than many grown-ups.

In fact, my friend Tom Wisner, who can dress up to look just like a crab or a jellyfish, and who teaches everybody from first-graders to college professors about the bay, says most of us are still in primary school when it comes to understanding how to save the Chesapeake.

It's not that grown-ups are stupid. But only in the last 20 years or so have Americans started thinking seriously about their environment. And it's only in your short lifetime that Maryland and other states around the bay signed a promise -- in December 1983 -- to make it healthy again.

Dr. Mike Hirshfield, the head scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says a good way to start understanding the bay's problems is to think of an aquarium, the kind that people have in their homes, or like you see in pet stores.

To keep the fish happy in the aquarium -- or in Chesapeake Bay -- you need three basic ingredients:

* Clean water, without too much dirt, poisonous chemicals or green scum.

* A filter, which makes those bubbles that fizz up from the bottom of the fish tank. The filter recycles and purifies the water. The bay also depends on filters: Oysters and sea grasses filter and absorb pollution from the water. And trees and marshes on land filter out pollution before rain washes it into rivers and streams that run into the bay.

* Restraint. You must keep an eye on the family cat; otherwise even the healthiest aquarium might lose its fish. In the bay, "the cat" is all the millions of people who catch fish, crabs and oysters. Fishing is great fun, and it's a living for Chesapeake watermen. But even the cleanest bay won't have much life if we catch it faster than it can reproduce.

So the bay's health is really the sum of three things: How much junk we put in it; how much life we take out of it; and how well we tend to the bay's natural filters.

All three are very important. So when you ask about what's polluting the bay, I have to tell you there isn't any one "worst" source.

Pollution comes from lots and lots of people doing lots and lots of things. Some examples, in no particular order: Cutting too many forests and filling too many wetlands for development, tearing holes in the bay's big green filter; farming so that too much dirt, fertilizer and manure run into the Chesapeake; catching more fish, crabs and oysters than we should; and allowing too many chemicals and other poisons to reach the bay from sewage, factories and dirty air.

All this pressure on the bay doesn't come just from people who live close to it. The Chesapeake is 200 miles long and more than 20 miles wide in some places, but it is part of something many times bigger -- a watershed, which is all the land that slopes toward the bay.

Nancy, if you drove with your parents from your house in Ellicott City and headed north for about nine hours, south or west for about five hours, or east for nearly three hours, you would still be in the bay's watershed -- because it covers six states. And in all that traveling, every ditch and creek and river and square inch of land you see, if it is producing pollution, is sending it in the same direction -- toward the bay.

So many problems over such a big area can seem overwhelming, but there is plenty of good news. Most important is the fact that most of the bay is a long way from dead. Wherever we reduce pollution, or ease up on fishing, or protect the filters, nature usually springs back so fast it amazes us. So if we do our part to clean up, I think the bay will do its part to respond.

And what can we do? Because we harm the bay in so many ways, we have almost unlimited ways to help it: by changing the way we farm and develop land, and by planting trees and protecting wetlands; by conserving energy at home and in the cars we drive, to reduce air pollution; by insisting that sewage plants do a better job; and by throwing back some of the fish we catch.

It is true that one person alone can't do much. But multiply that effort by the 15 million people who live in the watershed, and the results can be gangbusters.

For example, shortly after you were out of diapers, your parents and everyone else around the Chesapeake stopped doing their laundry with detergents containing phosphates, which had wound up in the bay and caused horrible pollution problems. It was a small change in each household. But it has reduced a major bay pollutant by millions of pounds a year.

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