Lake Erie Algae Bloom Reveals Lax Regulation and Wider Threat to Nation's Water Supply

Posted Aug. 20, 2014

MP3 Interview with Jon Devine, senior attorney in the water program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

water

Two major drinking water disasters have hit the U.S. so far this year. In January, a chemical used in processing coal, and about which very little is known, poured into the Elk River which serves as the drinking water supply for 300,000 West Virginians. In July, a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie led to a temporary drinking water ban in Toledo, Ohio, which draws its water supply from Lake Erie.

The two problems have different origins, but they both reflect the fact that what was once a universally provided public good in the U.S. – clean, safe water – is now threatened due to lax enforcement of pollution regulations under the Clean Water Act, little protection for tributary streams and wetlands and poor maintenance of aging water infrastructure. Lobbyists from the agriculture industry have aggressively opposed strengthening government regulations that protect clean water supplies.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Jon Devine, senior attorney in the water program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says the common thread is the interrelationship of our surface waters and our drinking water supplies. About 124 million people in the U.S. get their drinking water from surface waters as opposed to underground sources. Here, he discusses the particular problem in Toledo, where the algae bloom resulted from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agriculture and sewage system runoff, and what can be done about it.

JON DEVINE: Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution isn't just one problem, it's a bunch. So, solving it is going to mean a suite of solutions as well. There are a variety of sources of these pollutants from row crop agriculture, but also industrial livestock operations, urban areas that have storm water runoff that picks up all kinds of stuff and dumps it into our waterways, overflows from aging sewer systems, and sewage treatment plants that have these pollutants in their discharge. So, we're going to need to rein in that pollution from all of those sources where they are contributing to these kinds of algae blooms. The good news is we have the tools to reduce the likelihood of these outbreaks, but we need to get over the political opposition that has blocked them so far.

One of the most basic things we can do and what is the biggest current opportunity in this area is to move forward on an important proposed federal rule that would better protect tributary streams and wetlands that can serve as natural filters of some of these pollutants and that can also trap runoff that would otherwise whisk them to our waterbodies, but that's been vigorously opposed by discharging industry and by the agriculture industry.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Why do they oppose that?

JON DEVINE: I don't know. It's a very commonsense initiative. It would actually just restore protections to streams and wetlands that had long been protected, prior to a pair of Supreme Court decisions and Bush administration policies in the 2000s. These things are important natural buffers against pollution. They also help provide in their own right drinking water to millions of Americans – these small, seasonal and rain-dependent streams support drinking water for 117 million Americans.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jon Devine, how much of this problem is related to the poor state of infrastructure in this country?

JON DEVINE: Well, aging and aged infrastructure is a big problem. In a number of places – the Great Lakes is one and New England is another place where they are concentrated – we have sewage systems that carry the sewage from people's homes and businesses in the same pipes as runoff from parking lots and streets, and usually on dry days and small rain days, that goes to a sewage treatment plant. But on days when it's wetter, they are designed to overflow, so you get a mixture of raw sewage and stormwater going directly into water bodies without treatment. And that can have many of these pollutants that cause algae blooms, but also bacteria and viruses that can make people sick. Dealing with that is a big challenge that cities really need to help do over the next several years, but it's a many hundreds of billions dollars of investment over the next couple of decades, according to EPA. So we think the best solution to those sewage overflows, to stormwater in urban areas, is to require development to be designed in a way that retains water that would otherwise flow off. So, using techniques that we call green infrastructure, things like rain gardens, permeable pavement, green roofs. Things that capture water rather than of cause it to run off and become pollution.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And those solutions wouldn't be nearly as expensive as redoing all the old water pipes...

JON DEVINE: They are in many cases much more cost-effective, and they have additional benefits in the communities in which they're located; green solutions like vegetation that can purify the air, that can reduce urban heat effect, and all sorts of other things. People also just like to live near features like this.

BETWEEN THE LINES: But those old pipes will still need to be replaced, right?

JON DEVINE: That's true, and it's something that really does need to happen in many cities on a grand scale. Like I said, EPA has estimated there are many billions of dollars of needs on the infrastructure side, both drinking water and waste water, over the next 20 years, and that's going to take shared effort from all of us who use these systems, but also investing in the kinds of solutions we talked about that minimize the burden on those systems when they are used.

For more information on Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water Program, visit nrdc.org.

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