PEOPLE MAY NOT be "into environmentalism" the way they were a few greener years ago, but the most refreshing revival of pure and simple concern about mucking up our surroundings is popular support for saving the Chesapeake Bay. It's a natural, you might say -- and Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes has been resourceful and persistent in pressing for money and moves to clean up the water and save the underwater life within it. And if enough state lawmakers recognize the importance of this mission, they can enact a significant measure in this session of the legislature that would reduce pollution by banning phosphates in detergents.

Phosphorus is a fertilizer. In the freshwater portions of the bay, high loadings of the stuff are said to be the biggest contributor to excessive growth of algae. These algae die and decrease the dissolved oxygen in the water. That in turn kills off submerged vegetation, shellfish, finfish and other good things critical to the water quality. About 61 percent of the phosphorus coming into the bay is from what are called "point sources," mostly sewage treatment plants. In turn, a good 30 percent of the phosphorus entering these plants comes from laundry detergents. Ban the phosphates, the experts say, and you would reduce the amount of phosphorus now entering the Maryland part of the bay by 13 percent.

There's nothing all that new about this kind of ban. Six other states already have them: Michigan, New York, Vermont, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as the metropolitan areas of Akron, Dade County (Fla.) and Chicago -- comprising about 22 percent of the country's population. Already, half the country's population reportedly is using phosphate-free detergents.

For the good of the bay, Maryland should join the list. The General Assembly can and should make that happen in this session.