ESSAY- How-to: We can stop ruining the Bay

Warm weather gets me jazzed about being outside– near the water, on the water, and eating anything that comes from the water. I'll drive four hours round trip just to get three hours on the water. Now I've learned all this driving is killing the object of my desire: the blue crabs I get from the Chesapeake Bay. Okay, it's not just the driving; and it's not just me.

We're all unwittingly wrecking the waters that support the things we love to eat: blue crabs, salmon, oysters, clams, and the other tasty bounty from brackish and salty waters. And we're threatening the traditions of our favorite waterside haunts– campsites on the Gulf of Maine, cabins on the Great Lakes, pleasure boats on Puget Sound, cottages on the Jersey Shore.

The surprising part is how we're doing it. Not by dumping stuff in the water. We're doing it with air pollution. Specifically, we're doing it with nitrogen. But we can fix it too, by changing a few bad habits and with a little help from a cool web-based calculator.

Nitrogen ranks at the top for things troubling most U.S. bays, lakes, and estuaries. It's largely responsible for a 6,000-square-mile Gulf of Mexico dead zone, and for fish kills from Texas to New York, and at the mouth of major U.S. rivers on both coasts.

Here's how the damage is done: Nitrogen promotes algae growth. Algae blocks sunlight from reaching underwater plants and grasses. Without sunlight, underwater vegetation (which makes oxygen) begins to die, robbing the water of "dissolved oxygen" and aquatic habitat. That's when the things we eat begin to die.

When the algae gets real bad, it's called an algae bloom. Those blooms create dead zones in water with no oxygen. In addition to the one in the Gulf, we now have major dead zones on both coasts.

And where does all this excess nitrogen come from? Some flows from aging sewage plants and home septic systems, or from farm field and lawn runoff during storms– nitrogen is the active ingredient in industrial-strength fertilizers.

Nitrogen is also a byproduct of burning fossil fuel. Nationally, up to 30 percent of the nitrogen in bays and estuaries falls from the skies, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Most airborne nitrogen comes from power plants, but roughly a third comes from vehicle exhaust.

When we sit idling in traffic, we puff nitrogen into the sky. It falls on land and water, and ends up killing fish. That's right. Tailpipes kill waterways.

That's enough to make me want to stay cool at home and hide watching documentaries about endangered species on the widescreen TV— until I realize how much nitrogen my air-conditioning adds to our waterways.

But there's good news for us kayak-paddling fish eaters. People who study this stuff say cutting the amount of nitrogen reaching waterways is not only possible, it's doable. Not easy doable, but definitely achievable.

Bad news: We're hurting the watermen

Crabshacks are already starting to empty out.
ISTOCKPHOTO/SCOTT MARTIN

"We've lost the oysters. We lost the clams. All we've got left now are crabs and rockfish. If we lose them, we're sunk." So says Chesapeake waterman Russell Dize in a comment delivered September 16 with a new report by an eco group called Environment Virginia about the sad state of the Bay.

Right now, says the U.S. EPA, 350 million tons of nitrogen get into the Chesapeake Bay every year. If we could cut that to 175 million tons, the Bay can recover. For the average home, that's only about a 15 percent cut. Similar cuts could help the Great Lakes, coastal estuaries, and Gulf of Mexico, which drains about 40 percent of the land in the lower 48 states.

Start with airborne nitrogen. Changing a few old habits goes a long way. Here's an easy one: Why rush to get to the shore or other watery vacation spot just to sit in traffic? Take your time; leave later; arrive on the water at practically the same time without the stress, and without dumping nitrogen on fish.

Here's another easy one: buy a cheap clothes-drying rack. Clothes dryers account for about 15 percent of U.S. domestic energy usage, says Project Laundry List. So fluff up your undies in the dryer, then hang them on the rack to dry courtesy of your HVAC system or the air coming through the windows.

I hear you: "Changing a few habits won't save our lakes, rivers and estuaries." True, but it'll help.

And there are new ideas out there to aid with the big stuff. One just launched by an outfit called the Chesapeake Fund is a water-quality marketplace; it's a voluntary program modeled on the carbon trading system approved by the House and awaiting debate in the Senate.

The little stuff matters too, and requires personal engagement. Start by calculating your family's nitrogen footprint at www.chesapeakefund.org. See how your personal nitrogen output stacks up against the national average. Start a competition with your friends: The ones who cut the most nitrogen get treated to the tastiest crab cakes or fish fillets of summer. Sign me up for that.

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David Lillard is managing editor of The Observer newspaper in Jefferson County, West Virginia, as well as an editor with Blue Ridge Press, which distributed this essay.

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