Rethinking `quality of life'


Report: Even if goals to curb nutrient pollution are achieved, the Chesapeake Bay Program raises broader questions about growth.

August 13, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

"THIS WILL FORCE us to rethink how we grow or expand to question growth as a measure of prosperity. It raises the long term issue of limits to growth in all sectors.

"Yet, if we do not accept this challenge, all of the gains that have been made in restoring the Bay will disappear "

You seldom find such refreshing and challenging vision in government documents. But the above-referenced "Holding the Line on Nutrient Pollution," a report to the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, is a milestone.

From this modest, 17-page consensus of a bay program policy group, we may someday date the restoration of the bay, or the point where we began to back off a quarter-century of environmental commitment.

"Nutrient pollution" is not a phrase to stir souls, and this is no beach reading. Still, I recommend contacting the bay program for a copy ( or 800-YOUR BAY).

Nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorus -- are the two major pollutants of the Chesapeake Bay, and of coastal waters worldwide.

Nutrients are indicators of how we do our agriculture, our commerce, our waste disposal, our land development, how we consume -- and it says something that they are everywhere in excess and causing problems.

Since 1983, the bay program's restoration efforts centered on commitments from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the federal government to cut nutrients from sewage, fertilizer, manure and other sources by 40 percent.

By next year, the self-imposed deadline for the 40 percent cuts, we will be "arguably close" to achieving them, the "Holding the Line" report says.

(We're not that close on one biggie, nitrogen from agricultural runoff, but we're making progress.)

For a couple of reasons, this commendable and difficult achievement, breasting a tide of rising human and farm animal populations, was the easy part.

Reason 1: "It's time to recognize that 40 percent (nutrient reduction) was never the be-all and end-all," says Mike Hirshfield, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's senior scientist.

"Since the early '90s we've known that wasn't going to get more than modest improvements in water quality."

Reason 2 -- and the reason "Holding the Line" was produced: The bay program has acknowledged since 1987 that nutrients not only had to be reduced, they had to be "capped," or held at those levels (or as it seems now, even lower ones).

No more increase, as in forever.

Not even as a million more Marylanders move in, or millions more chickens, hogs, sports utility vehicles, megamalls and other sources of nutrient runoff to the bay.

The bulk of "Holding the Line" deals with how to achieve this. The report will serve as a guideline to the bay watershed states, which are supposed to begin nutrient "capping" strategies by 2001.

It offers ways that, in the short term, pollution could conceivably be held steady or reduced even as growth continues -- improved technology at sewage plants; more efficient use of farm manures and fertilizers; developments designed to remove nutrients from stormwater runoff, instead of the detention ponds that mostly control flooding.

Other near-term measures include nutrient "trading" and "offsets." A sewage treatment plant that needed to expand and could not further reduce nutrients might pay an older plant on the same river to upgrade its controls. (A similar approach is being used on the Potomac River.)

A new industry might purchase an abandoned gravel pit nearby and "offset" its bay nutrient impact by creating wetlands and forest habitat to buffer waterways against runoff.

To have any hope of truly capping nutrients, no sector of human activity across the bay watershed -- and outside of it -- can be ignored, the report makes clear.

States in the watershed that aren't signatories to the cleanup -- Delaware, West Virginia and New York -- will have to do more. Air pollution from as far as the Midwest that delivers nutrients to the bay will have to be reduced.

Existing development, and new development that displaces and paves the natural landscape, will have to pay far better attention to not increasing nutrient runoff.

"What's going to be our three most important issues are growth, growth and growth," says Tom Simpson, a University of Maryland agricultural scientist who chairs the policy group that created the report.

In the longer term, Simpson acknowledges, technology, nutrient trading and other measures can take us only so far. That is the real beauty, and perhaps the terror, of the decision to cap nutrients.

"Ultimately, we will need to measure quality of life by something other than the level of resource consumption," the report notes.

Much of this report is more boring than a call to arms. It has a lot more "shalls" and "shoulds" than "wills" and "musts."

But it lays out well what it will take if "Save the Bay" is not to be like attending church Sunday and forgetting about it Monday.

Initially, some will read it as limiting the consumption we equate with a better life. The issue, though, is not limits, but balance.

We are also consumers of clean water, of green solitude in which to re-create ourselves and enjoy fish and wildlife.

That is why "capping nutrients" is ultimately about as boring as spring in a woodland, or sunset over a bay marsh.

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