Secret to a cleaner bay: Change the way we live

September 21, 1997|By Elise Armacost

JANICE THOMSON, a receptionist from Westminster, has been following the Pfiesteria piscicida crisis about as closely as, I suspect, most Marylanders are doing. She knows sick fish are turning up in Eastern Shore rivers, and is waiting for some biologist or government official to do something about it.

It has never occurred to her that there is anything she can do, other than stay away from seafood.

I have been talking to a lot of people like Janice about what's going on in the Chesapeake Bay. They're worried, even folks who don't live in the maritime region.

Yet despite all the publicity, many of us still do not understand the connection between the Pfiesteria microorganism, pollution and ourselves. We want the experts to find an easy cure; in fact the cure involves a willingness to accept changes in the way we live.

Pfiesteria is usually a harmless microbe, occurring naturally in the bay. Experiments indicate that its transformation to a poisonous fish killer that also makes people sick is connected to an excess of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. That sounds confusing, since we think of nutrients as good things. But nutrients that leach out of agricultural runoff, fertilized lawns, car exhaust and factory emissions spell disaster for the bay -- something that would be true even if they were not linked to Pfiesteria.

Too many nutrients provide too much nourishment for algae. The algae grow out of control, sucking oxygen from the water. Grasses that cleanse the water die. So do small organisms, leaving larger creatures without food. Eventually they die, too.

This is not news. It has been established for at least 30 years that nutrient pollution is a major source of bay problems. For us to be shocked to learn that excess nutrients may cause microbes to go berserk is, as Tom Grasso, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, notes, ''like a smoker who smokes for 20 years and is surprised when all of a sudden he gets lung cancer.''

What is unusual with Pfiesteria is that -- unlike the loss of aquatic grasses, a problem whose seriousness is hard for the average person to appreciate -- its violent effect on humans and fish resonates with people like Janice. So far the public's concern has manifested itself through a largely unnecessary avoidance of seafood and recreational activities.

Choices to be made

It could, however, translate into something positive: a new willingness to consider choices that must be made if the bay is to be healthy again.

During the 1970s and 1980s clean-up efforts focused largely on regulating such easy-to-hate culprits as failing sewage plants and industries that emit toxic pollutants. The decline slowed, but many lulled themselves into thinking the bay was restored.

Now Pfiesteria has shocked us into reality: The bay still needs help. That people feel that now, and care about it, means we may be receptive when we learn that the next step in restoration depends, not on easy targets like industry, but on us.

I found that people are indeed willing to make sacrifices so their children will be able to fish and boat on the bay and eat Maryland crabs when they grow up. Everyone I talked to supported regulating the poultry industry -- strongly suspected of fouling Eastern Shore waters with waste from 600 million birds -- and would share the cost by paying more for chicken. They supported requiring farmers to reduce runoff by planting winter ground cover, and would subsidize them through taxes or higher prices. Many said they'd give up lawn fertilizers.

Other choices are tougher. People still gravitate toward sprawl development, which harms the bay by destroying forests, wetlands and fields that filter pollutants. Even after learning that a third of the nitrogen in the bay comes from airborne emissions, including car exhaust, no one I talked to liked the thought of car-pooling or taking mass transit, even as infrequently as one day a month.

All the same, I wonder if, just as this is the right time for us to tell our elected representatives what measures we're willing to support, it isn't also the time for them to lead us toward necessary change -- whether it's popular or not. Sometimes government makes the mistake of reacting to a public will that has been shaped by government's timidity. I'm not convinced that we wouldn't rally together if, in the context of the bay crisis, the state launched a serious campaign to get us out of our cars once or twice a month. After all, once no one thought we would be willing to separate trash for recycling, and now we do.

We are capable of moving beyond the desire for comfort and convenience when important causes are at stake. Whatever damage it has done, Pfiesteria will have done something good if it awakens us to one of them.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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