Little things add up in pollution

ON THE BAY

Residents: A survey indicates that many along the bay watershed fail to do their part, needlessly fertilizing their lawns and not picking up after their pets.

October 08, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE RESIDENTS OF A tony enclave, whose fine lawns slope to a pretty little cove off Norfolk's Lafayette River, were outraged one recent summer when a fish kill befouled their waterfront.

With marine terminals, chemical plants, urban malls and the Navy's Atlantic Fleet all located nearby, potential causes of the kill were not lacking.

The homeowners, influential around Tidewater Virginia, demanded action. But they did not much like it when the probable culprit was identified.

It seemed decaying lawn clippings dumped into the cove, rather than left to recycle their nutrients into the lawns, had depleted oxygen and killed the fish, water quality experts said.

The story is pertinent for the whole Chesapeake, as underscored in a new study by the Center for Watershed Protection in Ellicott City.

With 16 million residents in the bay's watershed and more than 5 million people in Maryland -- and growing fast -- water quality depends increasingly on how we do the littlest things, like managing the lawn, cleaning up after the dog, attending to the septic tank.

All of these activities wash nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants from watershed to water, as surely as rain falls.

It's all in a survey by the nonprofit watershed center that asked 733 Marylanders, Virginians and Pennsylvanians across the bay region how they take responsibility for pollution.

Many, it turns out, don't. Neither do programs designed to change polluting behavior appear to be working, the study found.

It's easier to focus on big sources of bay pollutants, such as industry and agriculture. Of course we must attend to those, but we need look no further than our sidewalks and yards when demanding cleanups.

Lawns occupy more land in Maryland than cornfields. A quarter of bay watershed households, based on the survey, routinely overfertilize them.

A majority of people also apply fertilizer when it's more likely to run off. Only 10 percent get soil tests to see if they need fertilizer.

This last finding is critical, says Tom Schueler, director of the center. With our lawns, he notes, "It's like we're a nation of small farmers, but [unlike farmers] it is a very acceptable option not to fertilize at all."

Many of the 50 nutrient pollution education programs nationwide reviewed by the report don't promote abstinence, or alternatives to lawns such as native plants. They stop at recommending using less fertilizer -- "more turf management than a water quality emphasis," Schueler says.

Cleaning up after the dog occupies several pages of the new report, titled "A Survey of Residential Nutrient Behavior in the Chesapeake Bay."

Based on the survey, about 41 percent of bay citizens own dogs, and of these, more than a third "never" pick up and dispose of their pet's fecal deposits (and I'm betting on liars in the other two-thirds).

A number of studies have shown that runoff of pet droppings, often from paved surfaces in metropolitan areas, causes major pollution during rainstorms.

The report offers a list of reasons people give as to why they don't clean up their dogs' wastes:

It eventually goes away.

It is on the edge of my property.

He goes in the woods.

It's just a small dog.

That last reason is at the heart of the issue. We don't think collectively about individual behavior: "It's just me." But it's not, it's 16 million times me.

It's the mentality shared by our governor, who fights courageously for clean air laws, yet drives one of the most polluting vehicles available (a Lincoln Navigator).

A huge, largely uncontrolled source of personal pollution that not even the center's survey adequately addresses is septic systems.

More than a quarter of those surveyed said their systems were older than their design life of about 20 years. A similar number said they have not been following routine maintenance, such as septic tank pump-outs.

About 30 percent of septic system owners surveyed did not agree that a link exists between their systems and bay water quality.

It is well-documented that even functioning septic tanks contribute substantial nitrogen -- one of the bay's primary pollutants -- to ground water, which inevitably flows to streams and the estuary.

Septic systems were designed to remove bacteria, not nutrients. Innovative designs that do better won't be required for years.

The report is geared toward solutions as well as showing problems. The "most striking finding," Schueler says, is that existing programs to educate the public about personal nutrient pollution show "a fundamental disconnect."

While people consistently say they find education through the media most effective, programs continue to use training workshops and demonstration projects, he says.

"Maybe we need to start a version of `This Old House' [a popular home fix-it show]," he adds. "Call it `This Old Watershed.' "

The good news is that many immediate solutions exist. Suggestions:

Inspect and pump septic systems regularly.

Apply no fertilizer or pesticides to lawns.

Gradually replace lawns with native plant landscaping.

Use a commercial carwash that treats its wash water.

Cultivate lawns with the primary goal of absorbing runoff from roofs and downspouts.

For more information on the report and related topics see www.cwp.org.

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