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If you break it, you pay for it [Commentary]

Some years ago, a colleague told me how, when he was a boy, he would vacation each summer with his parents in Ocean City. He and his mom always looked forward to crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Annapolis, where the sea breezes carried the very essence of this estuary — the smells associated with the vast array of organisms that live and die along the shoreline or in the saltwater.

But by the 1980s, Rick noticed that the air surrounding the bridge no longer brought to mind visions of the beach with its myriad periwinkles, sea stars, crabs, shorebirds and seaweed. The tell-tale aura of the sea had disappeared, and the family's much anticipated arrival at the bridge had lost its magic.

The "magic" died because the bay was dying. And as the bay's health declined, so did the once-bustling fishing industry that employed numerous workers, on and off the water. Only a remnant of what was once a thriving economy exists today.

The bay workers did not lose their jobs due to technological innovation, as happened when Henry Ford invented the assembly-line production of cars, thereby putting carriage and harness makers out of business.

No, these people lost their livelihoods because of the apathy and inaction of their fellow Americans upstream. Despite decades of media attention and scientific literature that rang again and again the alarm bell, society responded with a virtual yawn. The result has been devastating to the folks who have lived, worked, played and died in concert with the bay.

It's not yet too late to restore the bay to health; the natural world has a remarkable ability to rebound as long as the needed variety of organisms still exists.

But people need to own up to their obligation to help the bay instead of railing against the "rain tax," the derisive name given to fees that are supposed to be used to address deteriorating storm water infrastructure that local politicians have long neglected.

However, paying fees and pointing fingers at farms, factories and waste-water treatment plants — easy-to-identify and certainly undeniable sources of bay pollution — is not enough. We must also restrict pollutants that originate in our own backyards and end up in the Chesapeake Bay: chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides), soil and small-engine exhaust (from lawn mowers and weed trimmers).

The big problem is the American obsession with lawns around homes and businesses: Lawn and turf grass together are now considered the largest crop grown within the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Although seen as natural and water-absorbing, lawns actually function much as pavement does. The soil, compacted by lawn mowers, allows little penetration of water. Indeed, that is the reason lawn-care companies offer aeration services — they know lawns require man-made holes punched into the ground in order for water to penetrate the soil.

With ever increasing development in the bay watershed, there has been ever increasing lawn acreage. These green swards should be greatly minimized with encouragement from government. Homeowners and business owners who create nature-friendly (and thus bay-friendly) landscapes — lawn mostly replaced by flowers, shrubs, and trees — should be given reduced property tax rates.

Streams through properties should be required by law to be protected by natural vegetation. Current regulations often allow lawn to be grown right up to the stream edges.

And lastly, wildlife should be encouraged to live among us so that the environment can function as it's supposed to do. People must learn to live in agreement with nature; living without it is not an option.

Unfortunately, most of the measures that have been taken over the past 50 years to address bay problems have involved trying to repair the bay itself (i.e., fix what was broken), rather than addressing the ongoing sources of the problems (i.e., the impaired state of the waterways flowing in).

Millions of dollars and much time and energy have been spent, for example, on growing a diverse assemblage of underwater plants and rearing oysters, as if these plants and animals could just be placed into a degraded system and survive. Needless to say, such efforts can only meet with minimal success.

It's time for all citizens to recognize and take responsibility for their personal decisions in and around their homes and businesses that do, indeed, affect the Chesapeake Bay and those who live along its shores.

As signs in the fine-china shop declare, "If you break it, you pay for it."

Marlene A. Condon is a nature writer and the author of "The Nature-friendly Garden" (Stackpole Books). Her email is

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