Smart ways to save the bay

Pollution: There's room for economic growth so long as Marylanders take steps to maintain acceptable levels of nutrients in the Chesapeake.

June 20, 1999|By Tom Simpson

WE HAVE BROKEN the 15 million population barrier in the Chesapeake Bay basin on our way to 18 million by 2020.

Simultaneously, we are making great claims about -- and real progress toward -- cleaning up the bay. Our strongest commitment is to reduce the impact of nutrient pollution on the bay's living resources -- the crabs, fish and oysters, and the underwater grasses that provide critical habitat.

We are committed to maintaining our progress in restoring the bay. However, will population growth and development, along with our consumptive lifestyles, halt and reverse our progress?

Maryland is a national leader in Smart Growth, but we will need to grow very smart to accommodate our expected population increase. We are addicted to bigger houses, bigger cars and a lifestyle that consumes more and more land and natural resources. We do not wish to, nor are we going to, stop growing in the foreseeable future. Maryland is doing many things to preserve resource lands and manage growth, but the state or local government can only point us in the right direction.

We must individually and corporately change our habits. We have many reasons to grow smarter and to slow our consumption of natural resources. I want to focus on just one: nutrient pollution.

The bay is the nation's premier estuary, the heart and soul of this state and a huge economic engine. About 20 years ago, it became apparent that the bay was being over-fertilized with nitrogen and phosphorus. This excess of nutrients fueled large algae blooms that block sunlight and smother critical underwater grasses in the shallows. As the blooms decompose, they deplete oxygen in the deeper parts of the bay.

In 1987, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the Environmental Protection Agency made a commitment to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the bay by 40 percent by 2000.

In 1992, they recommitted to this goal and said they would maintain that reduced level "thereafter."

I came to Maryland (from Virginia) in 1992 to work with the state's Chesapeake Bay Program. When I first saw the proposed changes to the agreement, I asked, in jest, how long "thereafter" was.

Payback can be rough; I now chair a bay-wide group trying to identify issues and recommend policy options to hold the line on nutrient pollution reaching the bay.

Maintaining our progress in reducing nutrient pollution of the bay is our only logical choice. Otherwise, all the hard work and progress will have been for naught. However, maintaining our progress "thereafter" is very hard and gets harder each year because of new nutrient pollution associated with growth.

Our commitment is to have no net increase in nutrient pollution after 2000. There are only two ways I can think of to do this: Either we stop growth or we continue to grow and reduce pollution. It does not appear that we can have prosperity without growth, but if are going to ensure our grandchildren's prosperity, we need to start thinking about prosperity without growth.

Most growth in nutrient pollution is expected to come from new development around our urban/suburban areas. This will come from polluted runoff from our lawns, roofs, roads, cars, garbage and septic systems. The amount of agricultural land is declining, and new laws and regulations will reduce nutrient pollution from farms.

Sewage treatment plants have done a lot to reduce nutrient pollution, but they will be faced with increasing flows and nutrient loads because of growth. How do we grow while maintaining or enhancing our progress in restoring the Chesapeake Bay? Though this is a daunting task, it is not impossible, either technically or politically.

Consumptive behavior

In the short term, we can probably continue what we have been doing and implement new technologies as they are developed. But, we must begin to reduce new pollution from growth as well as reduce nutrient pollution from our highly consumptive individual and corporate behavior. We must implement and expand the concept of Smart Growth to minimize increases in nutrient pollution.

As individuals and families, how do we cause nutrient pollution? Perhaps understanding how our actions pollute the bay is the first step toward changing those habits. Let's start with the obvious -- sewage.

Each person generates about 8 pounds of nitrogen and 1 pound of phosphorus per year as sewage. Unless we develop a technology that completely removes nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage (which is unlikely), we must reduce nutrient pollution from another source to offset the increase in flow at the sewage treatment plant.

We also like to fertilize our lawns and gardens. Most surveys show that 50 percent to 80 percent of homeowners fertilize their home landscapes. Many of us unintentionally spread fertilizer on our driveways, sidewalks and curbsides, which then can wash directly into streams, rivers and the bay. Think about using less fertilizer and reducing the area you fertilize by using native plants.

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