Taking small steps helps reduce nitrogen pollution

ON THE BAY

On The Bay

September 29, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

AROUND THE newsroom at The Sun, the front-page articles running all this week have been tabbed the "depressing" series.

As the writer responsible for them, along with Sun environment reporter Heather Dewar, I'd be the first to admit it's not a cheery subject. It's about how nitrogen, an element of life, has turned lethal in recent decades, becoming the world's single biggest pollutant of coastal waters.

By extracting unlimited nitrogen fertilizer from the atmosphere we have created a bounteous agriculture, whose polluted runoff devastates aquatic life from the Chesapeake to China. Added to it are millions of tons of nitrogen released annually from smokestacks and vehicle exhausts, washing into rivers and bays when it rains.

So, with a burgeoning world population - most striving for American-style diets, not to mention more cars, air conditioners and other appliances that require burning fossil fuels - it's a foregone conclusion: The nitrogen that's already caused some 50 large "dead zones" of oxygen-poor water around the globe and killed vital sea grass habitats faster than we're losing rain forests, is going to get worse before it gets better.

All of this is depressing only if you think you can't do anything about it, only if you assume people will never care enough to put nature ahead of bigger cars and juicier steaks. The fact that so many things in our lives produce nitrogen also means that opportunities to reduce it abound.

Drive less and buy the most-fuel-efficient car you can stand. Buy a bike. It will help the economy, and on nice days you might begin riding it to the post office.

Can't think of giving up your SUV for a Honda Civic? Start slow. Mercedes, Volvo and Volkswagen all make big, roomy four-wheel drive wagons now. Even BMW has joined this growing parade of SUV alternatives.

My point is that you don't save the world all at once - going car-less and vegan while wondering what difference it will make with General Motors and Macdonald's pitching to 1.3 billion Chinese.

The point is just to start. Turn down the lights, weatherstrip the doors, microwave instead of using the oven. Less energy is less fossil fuel burned is less nitrogen. Using less energy can save money and maybe avoid building another landscape-despoiling, acid-rain making, smogifying power plant.

Which brings up another point. Most of the suggestions here don't just reduce nitrogen. They make the air and water healthier to breathe and drink.

Eat less meat. Getting the protein you need takes several times more nitrogen fertilizer if it comes through feeding grain to livestock, compared to eating veggies. Eating like Italians of the 1960s, the so-called "Mediterranean Diet," widely considered tasty, varied and far from meatless, would cut America's nitrogen fertilizer needs by some 40 percent. It might also keep you healthier.

If you gotta have some meat - I do - or any other food for that matter, try to make it Maryland-grown. Maryland farmers are facing some of the nation's strictest regulations to reduce fertilizer runoff. Reward them.

But what about all those Chinese and other Asians, where nitrogen excesses are going to grow much faster than here. Indeed, we should show them, and people in every other developing region, how to prosper with less pollution than we have caused.

But we should have no illusions that this alone will work. They are highly skeptical of those who are already fat and happy, who preach what they don't practice. So, to change the world, lead by example.

Save every wetland. Bogs and swamps and marshes turn polluting nitrogen into harmless nitrogen gas. And plant trees. They're great at sopping up nitrogen.

You wouldn't be doing this just for aesthetics or love of nature. A few years ago in a book, "Nature's Services" (Island Press), 13 scientists calculated the value of the natural planet - services ranging from pollination of plants to the regulation of climate and value of fish. They came up with $16 trillion to $54 trillion (the human economy was about $18 trillion). Close to half all nature's value came from less than a tenth of the planet's surface. Guess where that tenth was? It was the planet's coastal regions, the assemblages of sea grasses, coral reefs and continental shelf fisheries - precisely the areas that are most vulnerable to nitrogen pollution.

So demand that the state legislature pass the bill it killed last year to require septic tanks that don't leak nitrogen. And follow the label on your lawn fertilizer so you won't apply it when it could wash away in rainfall. Or plant wildflowers, and give up your nitrogen-producing, gasoline-burning lawnmower.

If everyone who reads this does all of the above, it will still get worse before it gets better. It's a long haul. We're only a decade or two past the scientific debate over whether nitrogen was even a problem in the Chesapeake Bay.

But get depressed about nitrogen? That's an indulgence even the world's wealthiest nation can't afford.

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