For the maiden voyage in our new canoe, we put in near our neighborhood along the Conodoguinet Creek and followed the shallow water to the Susquehanna River where the current carried us toward Harrisburg. All said, it was a three-hour tour.

I am a native Central Pennsylvanian, but I had never traveled the area's waterways until that paddle with my husband and our two children. We spotted crayfish, fish and lots of birds, especially herons. But what surprised me most were the tires. We came across so...many...tires. They have been on my mind ever since.

It turns out that until after World War II, our nation employed a "waste not, want not" attitude and most scrap tires were reused or recycled. But society moved away from this frugality, especially after the advent of steel-belted and synthetic rubber radial tires that proved more difficult to break down.

Tires piled up. By the time the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law funding a statewide tire recycling initiative in 1996, the toxic, fire-prone, mosquito-ridden and illegal piles contained 36 million tires. Other states also took action.

It never should have gotten to this point. My family didn't need to witness equal numbers of herons and tires during our summer canoe trip. Unlike some forms of refuse, tires have proven eligible for a number of uses beyond their vehicular purposes.

Pennsylvania's statewide recycling initiative spurred the creation of businesses focused on repurposing tires, often shredding and adding them to a compound used in asphalt, athletic fields and various civil engineering projects. The cement, paper and other industries burn tires for energy. According to the EPA, tire-derived fuel produces the same amount of energy as oil and 25 percent more energy than coal.

Similar recycling initiatives exist in other Bay states. In Maryland and Virginia, state environmental agencies charge a one-time fee on every new tire sold to support programs dedicated to cleaning up tire piles and managing the collection, transportation, recycling and processing of scrap tires.

At a national level, Bridgestone tire company launched a new Spent Tire Program on Earth Day last year. As part of the program's waste-free vision for the tire industry, the company will recycle spent tires collected during any organized cleanup event, free of charge. Bridgestone also committed to ensuring that for every new tire the company sells in the United States, one tire removed from use will be sent to another valuable purpose.

Without a doubt, progress has been made. In Pennsylvania, increased awareness and legislation has led to the cleanup of 20 million tires — and counting. New businesses developed to deal with the issue have created jobs and provide a beneficial service that supports local economies and the environment. Corporations like Bridgestone complement these actions by making sustainability a priority.

While fewer tires populate our rivers and creeks, those that remain provide a visible symbol of what else enters the water from the land. We can see a 20-pound tire when it makes its way into local waterways. But what weightless, odorless compounds departing lawns, streets, roofs, farm fields and parking lots are escaping our vision and affecting our health?

These invisible pollutants are the ones scientists worry most about and they are the reason why Chesapeake Bay states have been called upon to identify major sources of pollution and set milestones for meeting water quality standards in the watershed. This pollution diet, as it is called, has received an emotional reaction because of its high costs and tight time lines.

Cities and towns across the region are wondering how they will be able to afford their piece of the watershed's pollution diet. But what's the alternative? I have to wonder how we can afford not to take these steps.

We are now incurring the "pound of cure" that follows our grave lack of prevention. But rather than an impossible journey, the pollution diet may be an opportunity for creative ideas, effective programs and new business ventures to prevent land-based pollution from reaching local waterways. As with tires, our hard work and perseverance could pay off, and the ultimate, and priceless, reward would be cool, clear, tire-free, pollution-free water for everyone to enjoy...forever.

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service