Ten Threats: Bottled Water Diversion Debate

  • Some bottling companies, such as Besco, sell water, but keep it in the Great Lakes basin. Some others bottle it and ship it out of the region in great quantities. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Experts say one of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is water withdrawal. Water is taken from the Great Lakes for agriculture, industry, and public drinking supplies. Lester Graham reports there are many ways that water is used and shipped out of the Great Lakes basin, but few are more controversial than bottled water:

Transcript

Experts say one of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is water
withdrawal. Water is taken from the Great Lakes for agriculture,
industry, and public drinking supplies. Lester Graham reports there are
many ways that water is used and shipped out of the Great Lakes basin,
but few are more controversial than bottled water:


(Sound of bottling plant)


I’m watching big clear-blue water bottles, the kind you see on water coolers, are
bouncing along on a conveyer to be washed and then filled with water.
Chuck Swartzle is the President of Besco Water Treatment…


“Uh, we treat it – it’s well water – we treat it, purify it with reverse
osmosis, sanitize it, filter it and bottle it.”


Besco also bottles water in smaller containers, the kind you might buy at
the convenience store.


All of Besco’s customers are within the Great Lakes basin, so the water
will eventually make its way back to the lakes, but some bottlers
distribute water far outside the basin.


One of Pepsico’s Aquafina bottled water plants gets its water from the
Detroit River, which connects the upper Great Lakes to the lower lakes.
Aquafina’s bottled water is distributed inside and outside the basin. That
means Great Lakes water is being trucked away. It’s a net loss of water to the
basin.


That’s not anything new. Water from the Great Lakes basin in the form
of beer from Milwaukee or milk from Minnesota or any of the other
products you can think of that are mostly water are shipped far and wide
and have been for a long time, but some environmentalists say trucking bottled water
away is different. They argue it’s a lot like a recent attempt to take tanker ships
of Lake Superior water to Asia. It’s not like a value-added product that’s made
from water, it’s just water.


Bill Lobenherz is a lobbyist for the Michigan Soft Drink Association.
He says bottled water is a value-added product, just like the many others.


“Indeed, there’s a lot more water in lumber, for example, Christmas
trees, and sometimes a lot less value added to it too. You don’t have to
do that much to cut it and ship it. Cherries, baby food and other non-
consumable products like paint. What about the water we have to put in
the automobile radiators? I really don’t know that there is a distinction
there. It seems to be more of a misplaced perception than it is any kind
of environmental reality.”


“I guess I’m having a hard time getting my head around the difference
shipping water out in a truck-load of bottles and shipping it out by
tanker. What’s the real difference there?”


“I think the difference is that there’s the fear that if it’s by tanker in those
quantities, that it could be abused. If it’s in bottles, it’s really quite
controllable, because there’s so much more value added to put it in small
bottles.”


Not everyone is buying that argument.


Dave Dempsey is the Great Lakes advisor for the environmental group Clean Water Action.
He says the most recent debates about water withdrawals started when that shipping company
planned to take about 156-million gallons a year to Asia. Dempsey says a single new bottled
water plant trucks away even more than that.


“The Nestle’ project, a single project in Michigan that has been sited and
is operating takes 168-million gallons per year. So, the volumes can be
greater in bottles than in tankers.”


But that’s still not that much water compared to other uses.


According to figures in a report by the Great Lakes Commission, the
cities and industries around the Great Lakes withdraw more than 43
billion gallons a day. Much of it is used and returned to the lakes, but
nearly two billion gallons a day is lost. It’s not returned to the lakes
because it evaporates or it’s incorporated into products. Two billion
gallons a day makes the Nestle’ bottled water plant’s 168-million gallons
a year seem minor.


But Dave Dempsey argues there’s a more sinister concern. He believes
if water is treated like any other commodity, large corporations that can
profit from it will begin to horde it, and control it.


“You will hear bottled water companies say that they’re just another user
like a farmer or a manufacturer or even a city water supply, but they’re
not because they’re asserting private ownership of a public resource and
if we essentially allow that by not putting controls on the water-for-sale
industry now, I’m afraid the Great Lakes may become the world’s largest
privately owned reservoir.”


A recent agreement between the states and provinces around the Great
Lakes allows bottled water to be shipped out in bottles as large as five-
gallons, but some environmentalists say that’s a slippery slope. They say
corporations will soon be asking why just five gallons? Why not 55-
gallon barrels? And then, tankers.


The bottling industry says the environmentalists are making a big deal
out of nothing, and would do better spending their time teaching
everyone to conserve water better instead of complaining about someone
in another state quenching their thirst with a bottle of water from the
Great Lakes.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Southwest After Great Lakes Water?

  • This billboard was displayed along several major highways in Michigan. The sponsors were hoping to raise awareness about water diversion, but do these arid states really pose a threat to the Great Lakes? (Photo courtesy of Central Michigan Life )

We’re continuing our series on the Great Lakes. One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes that experts identified was water withdrawals. Our guide in this series, Lester Graham, says the next report looks at one of the myths of water withdrawals:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series on the Great Lakes. One of the Ten Threats
to the Great Lakes that experts identified was water withdrawals. Our
guide in this series, Lester Graham, says the next report looks at one of
the myths of water withdrawals.

Environmentalists and policy makers say a thirsty world could pose a
major threat to the Great Lakes. Water wars have been predicted in arid
parts of the globe, and some say the laws of supply and demand might
one-day lead to a raid on the region’s fresh water. Reporter Mark Brush takes a
closer look at one claim: that states in the southwest will one day come
after the Great Lakes water… and finds that it might just be H2O hype…


Taking water out of the Great Lakes is a hot button issue, and no one is
more aware of this than politicians looking for votes. In the 2004
campaign, President Bush used the issue to rally a crowd in Traverse
City, Michigan:


“My position is clear. We are never going to allow the diversion of
Great Lakes water.”


(Sound of applause)


The issue taps into people’s emotions. People get outraged when they think
of someone taking water out of the Lakes – especially when they’ve seen lake
levels dropping over the years, and the region’s political leaders have listened
to those concerns. The states and provinces that surround the world’s largest fresh
water system are working on a compact that will prevent water diversions.


But where is the threat to Great Lakes water coming from? We
conducted an informal poll on the streets of Ann Arbor, and we asked
people: “who wants water from the Great Lakes?” Six out of the ten
people we talked to pointed to the west:


(Sound of street)


“Las Vegas, the Southwest.”


“Probably the dry states in the West. Arizona, Nevada.”


“I think the west should keep their damn hands off our water.”


But do the arid states in the West really pose a threat to Great Lakes
water? It turns out – this same question was asked more than twenty
years ago.


In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the possibility of
moving Lake Superior water to the Missouri River. It’s a distance of
about six hundred miles. Farmers in the High Plains states were hoping
to use this water to irrigate their crops.


Jonathan Bulkley is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at
the University of Michigan. Bulkley and his colleagues analyzed this
diversion plan, and he says the whole project would have been too
expensive:


“We found it would take seven 1000 megawatt power plants dedicated to
lifting the water, because water needs to be lifted to reach these distant
locations, and in addition there would have to be conveyance structures
built to transport the water, and our conclusion was the total cost would
far exceed the value of the water.”


In other words, Bulkley found that it would be cheaper for these states to
find other sources of water – or to find ways to conserve the water they
had left, and this was a diversion of only 600 miles. A diversion all the
way to the Southwest would mean piping the water almost twice that
distance.


“We are always looking for extra water – everyone in the Southwest is
looking for extra water.”


Bob Barrett is a spokesperson for the Central Arizona Project. It’s one of
the biggest water suppliers in the Southwest. The Project pulls water
from the Colorado River and delivers it to southern Arizona. Barrett
says he can’t imagine a situation where Great Lakes water is pumped for
more than a thousand miles to the Colorado River:


“Most people don’t realize it, but a gallon of water weighs about eight
pounds, and if you’re going to push that up and over the Rocky
Mountains you’re going to need a lot of power. (Laughs) So, it’s a good
idea, but I don’t see how anybody could pay for it.”


But some observers say even though it might not happen today – it could
happen in the future. They point to a fast-growing population and a fast-
dwindling fresh water supply in the southwest. They say that
combination could drive engineers and policy makers to devise a way to
get Great Lakes water.


But Barrett says for states like Arizona, California, and even Texas – it
would be cheaper for them to build desalinization plants… these plants
convert ocean water into drinking water:


“I mean why should Texas build for a canal and then have to maintain it
from the Great Lakes down to the state of Texas when they can go to the
Gulf Coast and build several desalinization plants, and then just pipe it
wherever they need it?”


So, a large-scale water diversion to the southwest seems unlikely.
Experts say water from the Great Lakes is much more likely to go to
cities and towns right on the edge of the basin, but as legislators move to
tighten restrictions on diversions – even these places will
have a hard time getting access to the water.


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Demand for Drinking Water Increasing

  • Water diversion is an increasing threat to the Great Lakes. As communities grow so does the demand. (Photo by Brandon Bankston)

We’re continuing the series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our field guide through the series is Lester Graham. He says our next report looks at where the demand for water will be greatest:

Transcript

We’re continuing the series Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our field
guide through the series is Lester Graham. He says our next report looks
at where the demand for water will be greatest.


Right around the Great Lakes is where there’s going to be more demand
for drinking water. Water officials say as cities and suburbs grow, so
does the need for water. Some towns very near the Great Lakes say they
need lake water right now, but in some cases they might not get it. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:


People who live around the Great Lakes have long used the lakes’ water
for transportation, industry, and drinking water. Most of the water we
use, gets cleaned up and goes back in the lakes.


That’s because the Great Lakes basin is like a bowl. All the water used
by communities inside that bowl returns to the lakes in the form of
groundwater, storm water runoff, and treated wastewater, but recently, thirsty
communities just outside the basin—outside that bowl—have shown an
interest in Great Lakes water.


Dave Dempsey is a Great Lakes advisor to the environmental group
“Clean Water Action.”


“We are going to be seeing all along the fringe areas of the Great Lakes
basin all the way from New York state to Minnesota, communities that
are growing and have difficulty obtaining adequate water from nearby
streams or ground water.”


Treated water from those communities won’t naturally go back to the
basin. Treated wastewater and run-off from communities outside the
Great Lakes basin goes into the Mississippi River system, or rivers in the
east and finally the Atlantic Ocean.


The Great Lakes are not renewable. Anything that’s taken away has to be
returned. For example, when nature takes water through evaporation, it
returns it in the form of rain or melted snow. When cities take it away, it
has to be returned in the form of cleaned-up wastewater to maintain that
careful balance.


Dave Dempsey says the lakes are like a big giant savings account, and
we withdraw and replace only one percent each year.


“So, if we should ever begin to take more than one percent of that
volume on an annual basis for human use or other uses, we’ll begin to
draw them down permanently, we’ll be depleting the bank account.”


Some of the citiesthat want Great Lakes water are only a few miles from
the shoreline. One of the most unique water diversion requests might come
from the City of Waukesha, in southeastern Wisconsin. The city is just 20 miles
from Lake Michigan. Waukesha is close enough to smell the lake, but it
sits outside the Great Lakes basin. Waukesha needs to find another
water source because it’s current source – wells—are contaminated with
radium.


Dan Duchniak is Waukesha’s water manager. He says due to the city’s
unique geology, it’s already using Great Lakes water. He says it taps an
underground aquifer that eventually recharges Lake Michigan.


“Water that would be going to Lake Michigan is now coming from Lake
Michigan…. our aquifer is not contributing to the Great Lakes any more,
it’s pulling away from the Great Lakes.”


Officials from the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario and Quebec
recently approved a set of rules that will ultimately decide who can use
Great Lakes water. The new rules will allow Waukesha—and some
other communities just outside the basin—to request Great Lakes water,
and drafters say Waukesha will get “extra credit” if it can prove it’s
using Lake Michigan water now.


Environmentalists are still concerned that water taken from the Lakes be
returned directly to the Lakes, but some say even that could be harmful.


Art Brooks is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of
Wisconsin- Milwaukee. He says the water we put back still carries some
bi-products of human waste.


“No treatment plant gets 100 percent of the nutrients out of the water,
and domestic sewage has high concentrations of ammonia and
phosphates. Returning that directly to the lake could enhance the growth
of algae in the lake.”


That pollution could contribute to a growing problem of dead zones in
some areas of the Great Lakes. Brooks and environmentalists concede
that just one or two diversions would not harm the Great Lakes, but they
say one diversion could open the floodgates to several other requests, and
letting a lot of cities tap Great Lakes water could be damaging.


Derek Sheer of the environmental group “Clean Wisconsin” says some
out-of-basin communities have already been allowed to tap Great Lakes
water under the old rules.


“The area just outside of Cleveland–Akron, Ohio– has a diversion
outside of the Great Lakes basin, so they’re utilizing Great Lakes water
but they’re putting it back.”


There are several communities that take Great Lakes water, but they, too,
pump it back. The new water rules still need to be ok-ed by the legislature of
each Great Lakes state, and Congress. Since the rules are considered a
baseline, environmental interests throughout the region say they’ll lobby
for even stricter rules on diversions.


For the GLRC, I’m Christina Shockley..

Related Links

Ten Threats: Botulism Kills Beach Birds

  • Interns for Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania walk along a Lake Erie beach picking up dead birds. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Researchers are beginning to understand what’s killing thousands of
Great Lakes shorebirds. It might be part of a larger problem indirectly
caused by humans. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
reports:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the series, ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes’ which is now looking at the threat to beaches. Our guide through the series is Lester Graham. He reports that scientists are beginning to understand what’s killing thousands of Great Lakes shorebirds. It might be part of a larger problem indirectly caused by humans.


Researchers are beginning to understand what’s killing thousands of
Great Lakes shorebirds. It might be part of a larger problem indirectly
caused by humans. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
reports:


Along parts of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and Lake Huron, large numbers
of dead birds and fish are washing up on shore. If they’re left there, the
disease that killed them can be passed on to other wildlife. That’s why
park officials such as Mike Mumau at Presque Isle State Park at Erie,
Pennsylvania ask their staff to watch out for the dead carcasses.


“Our interns do a great job. They’re the eyes of the staff that are out. So,
there’s probably three to four days a week that they’re out on the
beaches, checking to see if they have anything.”


Since 1998, untold numbers of fish and sometimes hundreds of dead
birds a year have washed up on just these eight miles of Lake Erie beach.


Eventually, researchers figured out the problem: type “E” botulism. It
slowly paralyzes the birds until the respiratory system shuts down. Most
of them don’t make it that long. They get so weak they can’t hold their
heads up out of the water and they drown.


(Sounds of walking and shovel)


Leslie Jones and her fellow interns are headed out to an area to pick up
some dead seagulls on the beach.


“When we’re out here doing migratory bird studies, we might see some
and then we pick them up as soon as possible. A lot of times, we get
radioed from different people like lifeguards and they have us come out
and pick them up so that the disease doesn’t spread throughout the rest of
the ecosystem.”


They find five dead birds rotting on the beach. They bury the maggots
because they could carry the botulism toxin and other birds might eat the
maggots. They shovel the bird carcass into a black plastic garbage bag.


“If they’re very fresh, this one, obviously not very fresh, but, if we get a
fresh one, we actually freeze them and they’re sent off to be tested
botulism, but, something like this we’ll just bag up until we can get them
incinerated to get rid of all the disease.”


The fresh carcasses are shipped to the National Wildlife Health Center in
Madison, Wisconsin.


There, Grace McLaughlin is among the researchers who are beginning to
put the puzzle together.

Here’s what they think is happening. The invasive species zebra mussels
and quagga mussels create huge mussel beds that begin a complicated
biological phenomenon. Organic matter collects there, and then decays. It
lowers the oxygen level in the immediate area of the mussel beds. Type
“E” botulism spores occur naturally, but when the oxygen level goes
down, they begin reproducing like crazy. The waste they produce is the
toxin.


“That toxin will accumulate in the organic matter as well as in the water
in the immediate vicinity of the mussel beds. As the mussels do their
filter feeding, they will accumulate the toxin in their tissue. They are not
susceptible to the toxin. However, when the fish start coming down
there and eating the mussels, they become intoxicated, lose their ability
to swim properly and become easy prey for the birds that come in.”


The fish that feeds on the mussels the most is another invasive species,
the round goby. Researchers made the connection when they noticed the
botulism started being a problem shortly after round gobies arrived in big
numbers.


The type “E” botulism toxin has killed tens-of-thousands of birds such as
cormorants, terns, loons, ducks, and seagulls.


Back at Presque Isle State Park, Mike Mumau says it’s terrible to see so
many birds die.


“We just do our best on our end to stop the botulism cycle. When we
can, provide samples, and also, keep it a positive recreational experience
for all our visitors. They don’t want to see birds decomposing and
rotting out on the beaches, so we’re pretty diligent with that.”


Researchers say that’s about the best that can be done. Since ocean-
going vessels brought zebra mussels, quagga mussels, and round gobies
to the Great Lakes, all three of the invasive species have flourished. It
will likely be a long time before we’ll ever begin to understand the full
extent of the damage to the native wildlife of the lakes.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Bacteria Hits the Beaches

  • Lake Michigan dunes with a power plant in the background. (Photo courtesy of EPA)

If you swim or play on the beaches around the Great Lakes, you’ve
probably heard about ‘beach closings.’ At best, the situation is an inconvenience.
At worst, it’s a serious health risk for some people. That’s because the
beaches are closed due to dangerous levels of bacteria in the water.
Beach closures are not all that new, but Shawn Allee reports… the
science behind them could change dramatically in the next few years:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our field guide through the series is Lester Graham. He says anyone who visits Great Lakes beach is familiar with one of the Ten Threats.


If you swim or play on the beaches around the Great Lakes, you’ve
probably heard about ‘beach closings.’ At best, the situation is an inconvenience.
At worst, it’s a serious health risk for some people. That’s because the
beaches are closed due to dangerous levels of bacteria in the water.
Beach closures are not all that new, but Shawn Allee reports… the
science behind them could change dramatically in the next few years:


(Sound of dog and beach)


During the summer, dogs and their owners usually play together in the
water along this Lake Michigan beach, but today, several dog owners
scowl from the sand while their dogs splash around.


“It’s e coli day … it’s a hardship.”


This beachgoer’s upset, and like she said, e coli’s to blame.


Park officials tested the water the previous day and found high levels of
the bacterium. Missing a little fun on the beach doesn’t sound like a big
deal, but there’s more at stake than recreation.


Cameron Davis is with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a regional
advocacy group.


“Beaches are most peoples biggest, tightest connection to the Great
Lakes, so when beaches close, they really impact our quality of life in the
region.”


And ultimately, health is at stake too. For a long time, scientists tested
beach water for e coli because it’s associated with human feces. That is,
if e coli’s in the water, there’s a good chance sewage is there too, and
sewage can carry dangerous organisms – stuff that can cause hepatitis,
gastric diseases, and rashes.


Sewage can get into the Great Lakes after heavy rains. That’s because
some sewers and drains can’t keep up with the flow, and waste heads to
the lakes.


For a long time, scientists thought human feces was the only source of e
coli in Great Lakes water, but a puzzling phenomenon has them looking
for other causes, too. Experts say cities have been dumping less sewage
into the Great Lakes in recent years, but we’re seeing more e coli and
more beach closings.


Paul Bertram is a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency. He says, we’re closing more beaches because we’re testing
them more often.


“But I don’t think it’s because the Great Lakes are getting more polluted,
and more filled with pathogens, I think we’re just looking for it more.”


If we’re finding more e coli because we’re testing more often, we still
have a problem. We still need to know where the e coli’s coming from.
Bertram says there might be another culprit besides sewage.


“There is some evidence that it may in fact be coming from birds, flocks
of seagulls, things like that.”


But some researchers doubt sewage and bird droppings can account for
high e coli levels.


(Sound of research team)


A few researchers are sorting vials of water in a lab at the Lake Michigan
Ecological Research Station in Indiana.


Richard Whitman leads this research team. He says, in the past,
scientists could predict beach closings by looking out for certain events.
For example, they would take note of sewer overflows after heavy rains.
Whitman says researchers can’t rely on those triggers anymore.


“A large number, maybe even a majority of closures remain unexplained.
Today, we have closures and there’s no rainfall, may not even be
gulls, and we don’t know why the bacteria levels are high.”


Whitman has a hunch that e coli can grow in the wild, and doesn’t
always need human feces to thrive.


“This is my theory. E coli was here before we were. It has an ecology of
its own that we need understand and recognize.”


The idea’s pretty controversial. It runs against the prevailing theory that
e coli only grows in waste from warm-blooded animals, such as human
beings and gulls, but the idea’s also a kind of political bombshell.


If he’s right, it would mean our tests for e coli aren’t very accurate – they
don’t tell us whether there’s sewage around. After all, if e coli is nearly
everywhere, how can we assume it’s a sign of sewage?


“As a pollution indicator, you don’t want it to multiply. If it’s got an
ecology of its own, multiplying on its own, doing its own thing, then it’s
not a very good indicator.”


Whitman wants us to try other kinds of tests to find sewage. One idea is
to look for caffeine in the water. Caffeine’s definitely in sewage but it’s
not found naturally in the Great Lakes, but until we change our water
tests, Whitman will continue his work. He says we still need to know
how much e coli’s in nature and how much is there because of us.


Environmentalists want the government to keep a close watch on the new
science. They say we can’t let questions about the relationship between
e coli and sewage stop our effort to keep sewage and other waste out of
the Great Lakes.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Farmers Wasting Water?

  • A farm in Manistee County, Michigan using an irrigation system. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Land Use Institute)

In the Great Lakes region, farmers are one of the biggest users of water. They
pump water from underground aquifers or from lakes and streams to irrigate their
crops or water livestock. Agriculture has been criticized for its large withdrawals
of water. Farmers say they want to be recognized in a Great Lakes water use
agreement as efficient water users, but as Erin Toner reports… it’s unclear
whether that’s true:

Transcript

The series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is now looking at the threat of water withdrawals from the Great Lakes. Our guide through the series is Lester Graham. He says a lot of businesses and homes use water from the basin, but one group says its use is especially efficient.


In the Great Lakes region, farmers are one of the biggest users of water. They
pump water from underground aquifers or from lakes and streams to irrigate their
crops or water livestock. Agriculture has been criticized for its large withdrawals
of water. Farmers say they want to be recognized in a Great Lakes water use
agreement as efficient water users, but as Erin Toner reports… it’s unclear
whether that’s true:


Scott Piggott is the sixth generation to grow up on his dad’s cattle farm in a small
town in central Michigan. He says not everything on the farm is perfect, but he
says he grew up knowing that you have to do things right to protect the
environment.


“If we don’t begin to stand up and say, look, this is what we’re doing to protect
the environment, I think more people will continue to say, hey, they’re not telling
us what they’re doing, they must be doing something wrong.”


Piggott also works for the Michigan Farm Bureau. He says his goal is to make
sure every farm in his state is doing everything it can to protect the environment,
including conserving water they use for irrigation.


But Piggott and the farm bureau oppose broad regulations for large water users,
such as farmers. That’s proposed in a draft of a Great Lakes regional water use
agreement. Piggott argues the agreement should treat farmers differently because
the water they use goes right back into the ground.


Piggott said in a Farm Bureau press release that, “95 percent of the water that
touches a farm field seeps into the soil providing aquifer recharge.”


Later, he qualified his statement.


“It is estimated that 95 percent of the water that touches an open, pervious space
seeps into the soils and a portion of that, which I would infer that, it does provide
aquifer recharge, but necessarily does all 95 percent of it go towards aquifer
recharge. I think that might be debated. The quote could probably be stronger in
a given direction, but I stand by it.”


Piggott says his information is based on Environmental Protection Agency
estimates. But is his 95 percent figure true?


Jon Bartholic is with Michigan State University. He’s done research on water
use on farms. He says of all the water that falls on a farm – that’s rainfall and
irrigation – about 70 percent of it evaporates.


“So the remaining part, 30, 40 percent depending where you are. It might be
almost 0 percent, if you’ve got clay soil and it’s all run off, is there to potentially
to go back and recharge the aquifer.”


Bartholic’s estimate is that 30 to 40 percent potentially flows back into the Great
Lakes basin and its aquifers – that’s nowhere near 95 percent. Bartholic says farmers
do consume water.


“Clearly, farmers are being very conscientious about their water use, but, yes, if
you use water for crops and have economic value, there is some consumptive
usage of that water.”


Other water experts in the region say the issue is complicated. A lot of factors
effect how much water used to irrigate crops actually gets back to the aquifer.
Although one expert says at best the 95-percent estimate is “theoretically
possible” if conditions were perfect.


Conditions are rarely perfect.


Mark Muller is director of the Environment and Agriculture Program with the
Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. Muller says it’s
generally agreed that right now there’s plenty of groundwater in the Great Lakes
region, but he says there is still reason for concern. That’s because in other areas of the
country, aquifers thought to be plentiful have gone dry.


Muller says managing Great Lakes water resources is important for the close to
40-million people who rely on the basin for their drinking water. He says
managing that water correctly is also crucial to sustaining the region’s farming
industry.


“Industry and agriculture is going to look at the Great Lakes basin as a place
where they should set up shop. So, I think we should realize that we have a very
valuable resource that’s only going to become more valuable in future years.”


Muller adds that public opinion is very important to shaping the Great Lakes
regional water use agreement. He says any misleading information, from any of
the stakeholders, is just not helpful. That’s why the farm bureau’s claim that 95-
percent of the water used for irrigation recharges the aquifers is more important than
just an optimistic viewpoint. It’s seen by some as a public relations spin.


For the GLRC, I’m Erin Toner.

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Ten Threats: Air Pollution Into Water Pollution

  • Air deposition is when air pollution settles out into lakes and streams and becomes water pollution. (Photo by Lester Graham)

We’re continuing our series, Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Our guide through the series is Lester Graham. In this report he explains one of the threats that experts identified is air pollution that finds its way into the Great Lakes:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes’. Our guide through the
series is Lester Graham. In this report he explains one of the threats is air pollution that
finds its way into the Great Lakes:


It’s called ‘Air Deposition.” Melissa Hulting is a scientist at U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency. We asked her just what that means:


“Air deposition simply is just when materials, in this case pollutants, are transferred from
the air to the water. So, pollutants in particles can fall into the water. Pollutants in rain
can fall into the water, or pollutants in a gas form can be absorbed into the water.”


So, it’s things like pesticides that evaporate from farm fields and end up in the rain over
the Great Lakes. PCBs in soil do the same. Dioxins from backyard burning end up in the
air, and then are carried to the lakes


One of the pollutants that causes a significant problem in the Great Lakes is mercury. It
gets in the water. Then it contaminates the fish. We eat the fish and mercury gets in us.
It can cause babies to be born with smaller heads. It can cause nervous system damage
and lower IQ in small children if women of childbearing age or children eat too much
fish.


One of the notable sources of mercury is from power plants that burn coal.


(Sound of coal car)


Railroad cars like this one empty their tons of coal at power plants all across the nation.
More than half of the electricity in the nation is produced at coal-burning power plants,
and with a 250-year supply, coal is going to be the primary fuel for a while.


One coal producing state is acknowledging that mercury is a problem. Doug Scott is the
Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. He says coal is important to
the energy mix, but we need to reduce pollutants such as mercury as much as possible.


“The policy of the state has been to try to work with the power plants to try to burn
Illinois coal as cleanly as you can. Now, that means a lot more equipment and a lot more
things that they have to do to be able to make that work, but we’re committed to trying to
do both those things.”


And, Scott says the federal government’s mercury reduction program does not go far
enough soon enough, but the electric utility industry disagrees.


Dan Riedinger is spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a power industry trade
organization. Riedinger says, really reducing mercury emissions at power plants just
won’t make that much difference.


“Power plants contribute relatively little to the deposition of mercury in any one area of
the country, including the Great Lakes, and no matter how much we reduce mercury
emissions from power plants in the Great Lakes Region, it’s really not going to have a
discernable impact in terms of improving the levels of mercury in the fish people want to eat.”


“Relatively little? Now, that flies in the face of everything I’ve read so far. Everything
I’ve read, indicates coal-fired power plants are a significant contributor to the mercury
issue in the Great Lakes and other places.”


“It’s really not quite that simple. Power plants are a significant source of mercury
emissions here in the United States, but most of the mercury that lands in the Great
Lakes, particularly in the western Great Lakes is going to come from sources outside of
the United States.”


Well, it’s not quite that simple either. The U.S. EPA’s Melissa Hulting agrees some of
the mercury in the Great Lakes comes from foreign sources, but recent studies show
some mercury settles out fairly close to the smokestacks. She says you can blame both
for the mercury in your fish.


“You blame the sources that are close by and you blame the sources that are far away.
The bottom line with mercury is that we’re all in this together and it’s going to take
everybody reducing their sources to take care of the problem.”


Taking care of the problem is going to take some money, and that will mean we’ll all pay in
higher utility bills. The Illinois EPA’s Doug Scott says it’ll be worth it if we can reduce
mercury exposure to people.


“We know what the issue is. It’s not a matter of us not understanding the connection
between mercury and what happens in fish, and then what happens in humans as a result
of that. We understand that. We know it, and we also know to a great degree what we
can do to try to correct the problem, and so, it’s a matter of just going out and doing it,
and so I’d like to think it’s something that can be done sooner rather than later.”


And since Great Lakes fish have elevated levels of mercury, sooner would be good.
It’ll take a while for the mercury already there to work its way out of the ecosystem and
return to more normal levels.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

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Ten Threats: Mercury and Health Problems

  • Fish advisories warn about possible mercury contamination, but many people aren't aware of the risks. (Photo by Lester Graham)

There’s no disputing that fish is healthful food, but too much of certain
kinds of fish can be dangerous, especially if you’re a woman planning to
have children. That’s because some fish contain elevated levels of
mercury. Mercury is a toxic contaminant that can cause neurological
damage. Julie Halpert filed this report about the harms mercury can
cause:

Transcript

We’re continuing our series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ One of the
threats identified by experts was air pollution that in turn pollutes the
lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham is our guide
in this series. He says the next report looks at one pollutant that
eventually affects people.


There’s no disputing that fish is healthful food, but too much of certain
kinds of fish can be dangerous, especially if you’re a woman planning to
have children. That’s because some fish contain elevated levels of
mercury. Mercury is a toxic contaminant that can cause neurological
damage. Julie Halpert filed this report about the harms mercury can
cause:


Three years ago, when she was 18, Ayla Brown was healthy, but
suddenly, she started getting sick all the time. She was always tired, she
became anemic and had sore throats. Her tonsils had deteriorated so
much that they had to be removed. Her doctor couldn’t figure out why,
so he decided to test her for heavy metals poisoning.


The result? Ayla’s mercury levels were off the charts. They were five
times higher than the normal level. Her entire family was tested and
their levels also were above normal.


“The only conclusion we could come to is that in the past year or so since
we had moved to Ann Arbor, we had started eating a lot of fish and a lot
of fish that we now know is very known to be high in mercury, such as
swordfish and tuna and stuff like that.”


The Browns ate several meals of fish every week. Some of it was
ocean fish. Some of it was Great Lakes fish. After the diagnosis, they
cut fish out of their diet altogether. Within a year, the mercury levels
returned to normal.


“You are trying so hard to eat healthy and my family always was very
health conscious and so it’s so frustrating when you’ve done something
that you thought was good for you and realize that it was completely the
wrong thing.”


Fish are generally considered part of a healthy diet, but not all fish are
entirely safe. That’s because of mercury. Mercury exists naturally in the
environment at low levels, but higher amounts are getting into the food
chain.


Coal-burning power plants emit mercury, which eventually settles into
the Great Lakes. Then, aquatic microorganisms convert the substance
into methyl mercury, which is more toxic.


Those microorganisms form the base of the food chain. Small fish eat
microorganisms. Then, larger fish eat the smaller ones. As that happens,
the mercury concentrations escalate, making big large mouth fish like
trout, salmon and some walleye especially contaminated.


When people eat the fish, the mercury is passed on to them. Women of
childbearing age and their fetuses are most at risk.


Michael Carvan is with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Great
Lakes Water Institute. He says the exposure isn’t just from the fish that
women eat while they’re pregnant. A woman can pass her entire lifetime
load of mercury to her baby. He says that 15% of all women of
childbearing age have high enough levels so that their fetuses will
contain mercury of one part per million or higher.


“Even at really low levels, around one part per million, you’re talking
about some subtle coordination difficulties, you’re talking about
problems with memory and problems with neuro-processing and IQ
deficits.”


Because of these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency and
the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory for women of
childbearing age and children, suggesting they eat fish and shellfish only
twice a week.


But one expert is concerned by all this talk about how mercury harms
people. John Dellinger was on a task force, which provided guidance on
fish consumption advisories. Dellinger studied people who lived on
Lake Superior who he thought would eat a lot of fish, but he found
something else.


“We basically discovered that from an epidemiologic point of view, these
populations have other things that are adversely affecting their health,
that in fact will probably overshadow anything we’re going to see from
the contaminants in their fish.”


Dellinger said the people were so concerned about contaminants in
fish, that they started relying on store-bought, processed food instead.
Those foods were higher in fat and sugar and contained other, less
healthful, ingredients. So, obesity and diabetes caused health problems,
not mercury poisoning, and Dellinger says that ended up being a worse
situation.


He says the key is to choose wisely, avoiding fish such as swordfish,
tuna steaks and the larger predator Great Lakes fish that are high in
mercury. That’s the only measure you can take right now, but that doesn’t
solve the problem. The real challenge will be to get rid of the mercury
that ends up contaminating the fish.


For the GLRC, I’m Julie Halpert.

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Ten Threats: Saving an Ancient Fish

  • A juvenile lake sturgeon. (Photo courtesy of USFS, Rob Elliott)

Biologists have been concerned about a number of native species that
have been disappearing. One of them is the largest fish in the Great
Lakes. Over-fishing and gravel mining in riverbeds have wiped out 99-
percent of the population of lake sturgeon. Sturgeon used to be common
throughout the Great Lakes, but they’re a rare sight these days. Celeste
Headlee reports… biologists are trying to save some of the sturgeon’s
spawning grounds:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ Lester Graham is
our guide through the series. He says our next report is about an ancient
fish that’s been disappearing.


Biologists have been concerned about a number of native species that
have been disappearing. One of them is the largest fish in the Great
Lakes. Over-fishing and gravel mining in riverbeds have wiped out 99-
percent of the population of lake sturgeon. Sturgeon used to be common
throughout the Great Lakes, but they’re a rare sight these days. Celeste
Headlee reports… biologists are trying to save some of the sturgeon’s
spawning grounds:


(Sound of the lake)


Sturgeon are the largest fish in the Great Lakes. The grayish brown
creatures can grow up to seven feet long, and weigh more than 200
pounds. Sturgeon have been on Earth for 100 million years, and they’ve
remained essentially unchanged in all that time. Instead of scales, the
fish have an almost leathery skin with five rows of bony plates running
along their torpedo-shaped bodies.


Fish biologist Bruce Manny says sturgeon were once abundant in the
Great Lakes. Back in 1880, in one month’s time, fishermen pulled four
thousand of them from the Detroit River.


“They tore holes in their nets when they were fishing for other fish that
they cared about. So, when they found a sturgeon in their nets, they
would kill them, bring them to the shore, pile them up on shore, dry them
out and use them for fuel in the steamships. Burn them up.”


Most of the time, the creatures were caught and killed while fisherman
angled for more valuable fish. Scientists think over fishing has caused
sturgeon populations in all of the Great Lakes to dwindle to less than one
percent of their former number.


The state of Michigan closed the Detroit River to sturgeon-fishing years
ago. Bruce Manny says he decided to check on the sturgeon and see if
the fish population had started to recover.


Manny assembled a team of biologists from the U.S. Geological Survey.
He says he was surprised when his team caught only 86 fish over the
course of four years. Manny says he realized the sturgeon were in
serious trouble.


USGS scientists followed the tagged fish for two years, and their
patience was eventually rewarded. Manny found the first known
spawning site ever documented in Detroit River in modern times.


“We were excited all right. Eureka moment. I mean this is like a very,
very great coincidence that we were able to find these spawning ready
males, and they were able to find a female. When there are only 86 fish
caught in four years out here, there aren’t that many around. So, to find
someone to spawn with is a real challenge, I would say.”


The area where the sturgeon mated lies close to a sewer discharge pipe.
There are limp, brown grasses bordering grey, mucky water. Manny sent
divers down and discovered the fish had actually produced fertilized
eggs. Manny says this was a major step forward for his project.


Sturgeon are pretty picky about their nesting sites. They need a fast
moving current and several layers of rock where eggs rest safely. The
problem is a lot of the gravel has been mined out of the Detroit River for
use in construction.


Another problem is the sturgeons’ long life. Fish biologist Ron Bruch is
in Wisconsin. He oversees sturgeon populations in Wisconsin’s
Winnebago river system. He says female sturgeons live more than 100
years and they don’t spawn until they are at least 20 years old.


“Their life history works well for a long-lived species, but it doesn’t
work well for a species that’s exploited heavily. So, sturgeon can only
tolerate very low exploitation rates, and when that exploitation is high
the populations collapse.”


Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to create a sturgeon management
program more than 100 years ago, and the fish are more abundant there.


Biologists in Michigan monitored the nesting sites in the Detroit River
this spring. Eight species of fish used the beds, including popular sport
fish like yellow perch and walleye. Only two sturgeon came by the sites,
but they weren’t ready to spawn.


Ron Bruch says biologists will have to create a lot more spawning sites
like the ones in the Detroit River before the sturgeon population is firmly
reestablished in the Great Lakes.


“In and of itself, it’s not going to restore all of Lake Erie or all the Great
Lakes, but it’s a shining example of what can be done in many areas
around the Great Lakes to help produce Lake Sturgeon spawning habitat
and rehabilitate the Lake Sturgeon population.”


USGS biologists will go back to the nesting sites next spring. They say it may
take years for sturgeon to notice the small beds in the 32-mile river.


One important development, though, is a change of policy from the
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Canadians used to allow
fisherman to take one sturgeon a day out of the river. Now, it’s illegal to
possess one of the endangered fish on both sides of the channel.


For the GLRC, I’m Celeste Headlee.

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Ten Threats: Coaster Brook Trout

  • A close up look at a Coaster Brook trout. (Courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

A lot of native fish have been hurt by pollution, invasive species and changes we’ve
made on the lake, but one fish stands out. For anglers, the Coaster Brook trout might have
been the greatest Great Lakes fish. It was abundant, fun to catch and lived in the cleanest
water, but throughout the 20th century, its populations declined just as the health of the
lakes did. Now, slowly, a diverse group of people is trying to save the fish in an effort
that could improve the Great Lakes too. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris
McCarus reports:

Transcript

We’re continuing our look at Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. Lester Graham is the
series guide. He says one of the threats is a disappearing species.


A lot of native fish have been hurt by pollution, invasive species and changes we’ve
made on the lake, but one fish stands out. For anglers, the coaster brook trout might have
been the greatest Great Lakes fish. It was abundant, fun to catch and lived in the cleanest
water, but throughout the 20th century, its populations declined just as the health of the
lakes did. Now, slowly, a diverse group of people is trying to save the fish in an effort
that could improve the Great Lakes too. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris
McCarus reports:


(Sound of river waterfall)


Hundreds of feet above Lake Superior, the Salmon Trout River flows fast and falls hard
onto a rocky bottom below. Much of the river lies within a large tract of private woods
and hills. It’s been untouched for about a century.


Peter Dykema and his family are part owners of the land. He speaks with affection about
fishing for coaster brook trout here as a kid.


“Well as you can tell it’s a beautiful river and there’s nothing a 14 year old boy would
rather do than get his feet cold and wet and throw flies into trees. So, I did it every
chance I had.”


Dykema is nostalgic because those days are long gone for almost everybody. He’s part
of a group of activists trying to restore the coaster brook population.


Coaster brook trout have sparkling colors. They’re even more colorful than Rainbow
trout, and they grow a lot bigger. They can reach 2 feet and 4 pounds. These indigenous
fish used to live in 200 streams around Lake Superior. People came from all around the
nation to fish for them. Presidents Roosevelt and McKinley came to Michigan to catch
them, and they were caught by the boatload.


Over fishing was one of the biggest reasons why they were nearly wiped out. Their
habitat was damaged from mining and road building. Silt filled in the rock bottom where
they like to lay their eggs. That also hurt the fish.


Logging damaged the coaster brook’s habitat. Scott Libants is a fish and wildlife
researcher at Michigan State University. He says loggers dammed up streams to flood
them. Then they packed them with logs. When they had enough, they broke the streams
back open so the logs would float down to the lake to be sold.


“You knock the dam out and send all the trees down. You scour the watershed. It’s like
flushing a toilet.”


The fish haven’t recovered since. They just couldn’t take the abuse.


The Salmon Trout River still has them because the private landowners banned fishing
and didn’t alter the land. It’s one of only a handful of streams in the U.S. and Canada
that still has the coaster brook trout.


(Sound of people walking in the woods)


Downstream on the way to Lake Superior, Peter Dykema and state environmental
officials walk to the spot where they have equipment that counts the numbers of coaster
brooks going up river to lay their eggs. Dykema says they counted more than 80 fish last
season. The population seems to be slowly increasing here, but the stream still isn’t
perfect. There’s too much sand and not enough gravel for laying eggs.


“Most of the sediment problem we are looking at is a creature of the last 40 or 50 years.
So if we can stop the input, I’m hoping that the river will be able to cleanse itself.


The sediment Dykema is talking about comes from the points where roads cross the river.
People and cars jar soil loose and it fills up the riverbed. This is the fish’s current
challenge. Coaster brook trout are sensitive and susceptible to pollution. Conservation
officials use brook trout as indicators of high water quality. Coaster brooks will die if
they don’t have nearly perfect conditions.


(Sound of Lake superior waves lapping on rocks.)


Few anglers alive today have seen coaster brook trout, but if they could this would be the
place. It’s where the Salmon Trout River meets Lake Superior. For a diverse group of
conservationists, this place symbolizes what people did to the land and water of the
region.


Laura Hewitt is visiting from Trout Unlimited in Wisconsin.


“This is a fish that presidents came to fish for, that Hemingway wrote about. It’s
something that captures the imagination, it touches the soul. It’s a fish that we care
very much about and think it can be sort of a rallying point for action in the basin.”


Those working to preserve the last few hundred coaster brook trout say we should feel
lucky that they’re not all gone. They say now’s the time to keep what’s left, build it up,
and use the eggs from this small population to start the fish in other streams of Lake
Superior. Then perhaps within our lifetime, our children can enjoy the fish that our great
grandfathers did, and in doing that, they’ll know the water’s clean.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

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