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To save Chesapeake, turf may face tough love

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010

The Chesapeake Bay does not like your lawn.

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That green grass is probably coated with pesticides and fertilizers and studded with pet poop. All that washes off in the rain and causes environmental problems downstream in the Chesapeake.

Now, the humble suburban lawn is a test case for the Obama administration, which is trying to overhaul the long-failed effort to clean up the bay.

Its vision calls for unprecedented - and perhaps uncomfortable - changes on land. Farmers will cut back on fertilizer. Taxpayers will shell out to improve sewer plants and filter storm runoff.

And your lawn might need to be replaced by rain gardens or shaggy fields of native plants.

What's missing is a detailed plan - and an assurance that residents will choose a distant estuary over the beloved patch of green outside their door.

"The well-manicured, beautiful, dark-green, over-fertilized lawn can be part of the problem," said Randy Bartlett, a public works official in Fairfax County. He said that in addition to paying more fees, residents might see new rules or incentive programs designed to make them view their lawn differently. "It's kind of like with the seat belts. It took us a while to get used to it."

The Chesapeake's main problems are a pair of pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, that wash downstream in manure, treated sewage and fertilizer. In the bay, these feed unnatural algae blooms that rob the water of dissolved oxygen, creating underwater "dead zones."

These problems have not been resolved, despite a 27-year cleanup effort that has cost billions of dollars, but the EPA says it is determined to put the cleanup on course.

This fall, it scolded several states for not doing enough to curtail the pollution they send downstream. For those states, including Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Environmental Protection Agency threatened unprecedented punishments: It would force costly sewer-plant upgrades or limit new development in some areas.

Oliver Houck, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, said that the EPA has made the Chesapeake a national laboratory. He said that other bodies of water, including the Gulf of Mexico, have similar dead zones but that the problem hasn't been tackled with the same ambition.

"You win this thing, you're winning it for the country," Houck said.


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