Volume 13, Issue 39 ~ September 29 - October 5, 2005
Where We Live
by Steve Carr

The Green, Green Grass of Home
Green-celled wanderers stain our Bay a vegetable-broth mahogany

Sometimes looks can be deceiving. Like the calm before the storm, the Bay has a way of lulling us into a dreamy complacency. It just looks so nice.

We always hear about how the Bay is dying because of farmers and aging sewer treatment plants, but grass is also a big problem, especially where there’s lots of money, big homes and manicured lawns. Many homeowners have some hot-shot landscaping company descend each week like an invading army, armed with riding mowers, industrial-strength weed trimmers and those deafening leaf blowers that turn the neighborhood into the inside of a chainsaw. As they are packing up their noisy tools and heading out to the next job, they often let loose with a myriad of turf-grow products that will produce the greenest lawns you’ve ever seen.

As fast as grass grows around here without any encouragement, why would anyone put fertilizer down to speed up the process?

Just for the record, every time you cut the grass, the clippings dump more nitrogen on your lawn than it ever really needs. Spreading fertilizer on a Maryland lawn is like putting sugar on candy.

But what do green lawns have to do with Bay problems, you ask?

Nitrogen. Nitrogen. And more nitrogen.

How Long Can You Hold Your Breath?
Lest you doubt my word, take a quick look at our local rivers. What do you see? That’s right. They are red. And no, that’s not sediment. What you’re seeing is mahogany tide.

I was swimming in front of my home the other day. Dodging jellyfish and working on my crab pots, I scooped up a glass of water from the Severn. It looked like vegetable broth. It was as thick and lush as a freshly mowed lawn.

What I was gazing at were zillions and zillions of phytoplankton, which is the Latin word for green-celled wanderers. Basically, these guys are algae, which form giant blooms just like a waterborne lawn and stain the rivers as they blossom and grow. The ones that cause the mahogany tide are called dinoflagellates, which have been here since the dawn of time. Left to their own devices, these algal blooms stay within manageable proportions.

What’s feeding these little microscopic critters is the stuff that comes off of our lawns after a rainstorm. Fertilizer. Those chemicals do exactly the same thing in the water that they do on our lawns.

These little microscopic creatures are incredibly short-lived. They float near the surface, sucking up all that nitrogen and converting sunlight into more organic material. Then they die.

That’s where the trouble starts. After a few days without rain, their food source — the nitrogen — dries up, and they expire. When they die, they drift to the bottom of the Bay, where they use up valuable oxygen as they decompose.

This lack of oxygen in the Bay is a very big problem and getting worse each year.

What makes this whole thing so insidious is that nothing looks amiss. Everything looks to be in order. But it’s not. It’s so out of whack it’s scary.

Recent surveys indicate 36 percent of the Bay is without oxygen. That’s more than one-third of the Bay devoid of life, from the benthic organisms in the mud to the rockfish at the top of the food chain. Float into one of these dead-air pockets, and you are a goner.

Imagine you’re a hard crab making your way up College Creek to shed your shell. You are swimming along the bottom, getting ready to turn soft. You’re trying to avoid the bizillion crab pots and all the other crabs that will eat you in a heartbeat.

Suddenly there is no air. You take a gulp of water, but there’s no oxygen in it. You stop. You look around in confusion, then growing terror. What happened to the oxygen? Where did it go? What should you do now? You drink in desperately for some air, but there’s none to be found. What direction should you go to find the precious oxygen? Upstream? Downstream? Toward the surface? You’re running out of air now. You swim in circles and then head back out the way you came in, growing weaker from lack of air.

How long can you hold your breath?

Not long.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.