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Doing Your Part to Save the Bay

University of Virginia Department of Environmental Science

You’ve no doubt heard about carbon footprints – measures of how much a person or corporation pollutes the atmosphere with carbon.  Now, the University of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation want people to consider another pollutant – nitrogen –a big problem for the bay. 

Nitrogen is a fertilizer – spread across farm fields and excreted by farm animals.  Over the decades, large amounts have washed into Virginia’s rivers and streams according to James Galloway, a professor of environmental science at UVA.

“It causes a whole host of environmental problems: groundwater contamination, acid rain, smog, stratospheric ozone depletion, greenhouse effect, coastal eutrophication is a big one for the bay.” 

That last thing – coastal eutrophication – occurs when nitrogen in Chesapeake Bay causes algae to grow out of control, sucking Oxygen from the water and creating dead zones.  To combat that problem, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wants everyone in its watershed to make changes.

“We’re always looking at what can developers do, and what can farmers do, and what can industry do, and this is sort of  what can I do?”

Beth McGee is Director of Science and Agricultural Policy at the foundation, and she’s excited about a new calculator developed by the University of Virginia to help people figure out how much nitrogen they’re sending into the Bay.  If you go to the foundation’s website, Jim Galloway says, you’ll find a series of questions.

“How much and the types of food that you eat, the kind of car or cars you have, how old they are, how many miles a year you drive, the size of house you have, the size of lot you have, whether or not you use fertilizer.”

With those numbers in its database, the calculator will size up your contribution to the Nitrogen problem and give you a grade. If you eat lots of meat, McGee says, you might get an F.

“There’s a lot of nitrogen that’s used to grow the feed for the animal.  There’s nitrogen that’s lost along the way, basically through manure, and so the notion of eating higher on the food chain, there’s just more opportunity for nitrogen to be lost to the environment.”

So the website urges people to cut back on how much meat they consume.

“There are some tips for reducing your meat consumption but also using less electricity, trying to carpool or bike to work one day a week.  If I put a rain barrel in in my yard, what will the benefit be? And although that benefit may seem small, if you scale that up, like if everyone put in a rain barrel, or if everyone replaced 10% of their yard with native landscaping, the pollution reductions from that would be huge!”

And Galloway adds that eating less meat may actually improve health.

“Because the average person in the U.S. overcomes protein by roughly 30% above guidelines.”

While the idea of a nitrogen footprint is relatively new, it’s definitely taking hold with ten different countries asking UVA to provide them with custom calculators.  Galloway is also working with 18 universities and several high schools to get students involved with this educational tool, and McGee says the bay is showing signs of improvement based on changes people have already made.

“There were abundant, large crabs this year, and that reflects our efforts to reduce pollution. Crabs are very dependent on underwater grasses for protection when they’re larvae or when they’re shedding their shells and are vulnerable to being eaten, and underwater grasses last year were among the highest we’ve ever seen, and part of that is due to our pollution reduction efforts.”

And after calculating its own nitrogen footprint, the University of Virginia has pledged to cut its nitrogen pollution 25% by the year 2025.  

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