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Large blooms of poisonous algae in Lake Erie recently forced a tap water ban in Toledo, Ohio. Scientists say it’s a widespread problem across the country. Diane and her guests discuss what’s behind the increase in harmful algae and debate over tougher regulation.
- Don Parrish senior director of regulatory relations, American Farm Bureau Federation. His primary area of responsibility is dealing with issues involving the Clean Water Act.
- Anna Michalak professor of global ecology, Carnegie Institute for Science, Stanford University.
- Jon Devine senior attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council water program.
- Annie Snider reporter covering water issues for Greenwire and E&E Daily.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. From the Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lake, poisonous algae has been found in water bodies across the nation. In some cases, it's threatening the safety and cleanliness of the water supply. Here with me to talk about harmful algae and debate over stricter regulations, Jon Devine of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
MS. DIANE REHMAnnie Snider, she's a reporter for the publications Greenwire and E&E Daily. Don Parrish of the American Farm Bureau Federation and joining us from Palo Alto, California, Anna Michalak, professor of global ecology at Stanford University. And throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, 80-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And thank you all for joining us.
MS. ANNIE SNIDERThanks for having us.
MR. JON DEVINEYes, thank you.
MR. DON PARRISHThank you.
MS. ANNA MICHALAKThanks for having us.
REHMGood to see you all. Annie Snider, if I could start with you. Remind us what happened over last weekend in Toledo, Ohio, and how people were affected.
SNIDERWell, at this point, algae blooms are an annual occurrence on Lake Erie. It's not a question of if it'll happen, but where and how big it'll be. Lake Erie has a particular problem because the kind of algae that's prevalent there is this blue-green algae. It has bacteria in it that can produce toxins that are pretty nasty, harmful to human health.
SNIDERAnd so in part because Ohio has -- because Lake Erie has these problems, the state of Ohio has a more proactive plan for monitoring drinking water for these toxins and so that plan worked this weekend. On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put out their weekly update on algal blooms on Lake Erie and you could see the southwestern corner of the lake, near Toledo's water intake, had a burst of algal blooms and it had this kind of bacteria in it that produces the toxins.
REHMDo I understand correctly that September is actually the month when the greater number of blooms appear so we could be looking at a repeat performance?
SNIDERYeah. So late July, early August is usually when they get going. They're fed by nutrient pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus that wash off of farm fields and suburban lawns. So the spring and summer rains wash them into the lake and then they're kind of driven by warmer water temperatures. So Lake Erie is actually the shallowest of the Great Lakes and so they're a particular problem there.
SNIDERBut the warmer summer temperatures really get them going and so that's why later in the summer and September they really get going.
REHMBut Jon Devine, I thought that algae itself was not particularly harmful. What is it that happens to the algae that creates this pollution in the water?
DEVINEYeah. As Annie said, the algae contains this bacteria, cyanobacteria is what they call it, that produces a toxin that can make people sick if they're swimming in it, but also is toxic to people if it gets into the drinking water supply.
REHMSo you're saying even if they're not swallowing it, just swimming in it can be a real problem.
DEVINESure. These blooms have actually killed animals, livestock and people's pets.
REHMInteresting. Anna Michalak, what is the link that you have seen between these harmful algae and fertilizer?
MICHALAKThe blooms need nutrients to grow in the same way that crops need nutrients to grow. And so when farmers apply fertilizer to their fields, if intense rains come at just the wrong time, a large amount of that, those nutrients, are flushed into the lake and there, they essentially end up fertilizing these blooms, rather than fertilizing the crops.
REHMSo is there some element of wind involved here?
MICHALAKThere certainly is an element of wind. Rainfall plays a role. Temperature plays a role. Wind plays a role. What we saw in Toledo was definitely related to wind because wind affects lake circulation. So the fact that this bloom piled up right near the Toledo water intake is, in fact, due to what the wind patterns were that then dictated how the lake was circulating at that time.
REHMSo thus far and certainly last weekend, the whole country was focused on Toledo. But what is the potential for this kind of algae bloom pollution affecting other bodies of water across the country, Anna Michalak?
MICHALAKThat's a great question. We're seeing more and more nutrient runoff into waters across the U.S. on the east coast, on the west coast, as well as these inland water bodies and it's all related to more intense use of our land. But in very specific ways, it interacts with changing meteorology so that more of these nutrients are being flushed into the water. And this leads to algal blooms on the coastal areas and also what are known as these dead zones, so areas with very low oxygen.
REHMBut Jon Devine, did a Clean Water Act address some of these kinds of problems?
DEVINEWe did a good job following the 1972 enactment of the Clean Water Act of reducing some of the pollution that causes these algae blooms, but there still are a remaining suite of pollution sources from urban land uses, as Annie pointed out, to agriculture, to large industrial farms, that have these nutrients that wash off and can cause them.
DEVINEAnd because of climate change, which is exacerbating runoff and which is leading to these bigger pulses of pollution, we're getting these again.
REHMSo now, in what ways could the Clean Water Act be strengthened so that this kind of pollution of the algae would not happen, Annie?
SNIDERWell, so the issue that Jon was getting at there is that there are sort of two categories of sources under the Clean Water Act. There's things that come out of the pipe, like factories and wastewater treatment plants, and then there's things that are more related to land use, so things like farming and people's lawns and city streets.
SNIDERAnd those things are called non-point sources. So the federal...
REHMNon-point sources, okay.
SNIDERYeah, so it doesn't come out of a single point.
SNIDERIt doesn't come out of a single pipe. So non-point sources are not regulated under the federal Clean Water Act. That's left to the states. And so there's a real problem, at this point. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Two-thirds of the nation's waters were deemed unhealthy at that point in time. Now, more than 40 years later, we've cleaned up half of those, but the other half are still deemed polluted.
SNIDERAnd, at this point, the lion's share of the pollution affecting those rivers and streams and lakes is coming from non-point sources and so there's a real question right now about how to deal with them. Currently, it's all voluntary or handled at the state level and so there are certainly some groups that would advocate for stronger federal regulation and there's some interesting efforts underway right now to try and use the tools that the federal government does have to try and deal with those sources more effectively.
REHMAnd Don Parrish, turning to you, of the American Farm Bureau Federation, who do you think is to blame or what is to blame for what happened in Ohio?
PARRISHWell, Diane, I think you've reached the conclusion that this is a very complex issue. I think it directly relates to people. It directly relates to, you know, the numbers of people that we have. You know, we've got to feed those people. We've got to provide them jobs and roads and schools and hospitals. So it really does kind of intersect with us as a people and how we live our lives and in the types of things that we do to produce food and fiber.
PARRISHIt also directly relates to the kind of investment that we've had in infrastructure. You know, and I think there's a lot of things at play here. The one thing I'll throw out here is that most -- when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, we made a huge investment. A huge investment. And that occurred in the 1970s.
PARRISHAnd since that time, we've been kind of living on borrowed time, both for non-point sources and for point sources.
REHMSo how would the American Farm Bureau Federation feel about tightened regulation through the Clean Water Act?
PARRISHWell, we think the Clean Water Act is a comprehensive statute as it is and we think anything to do with land use type of issues that is gonna directly impact where people build home and how we farm, micromanaging farms is best done at the state and local level. Therefore, we would probably very much oppose anything that would try to impose a one-size-fits-all from Washington.
REHMJon Devine, how do you feel about tightening regulations for the Clean Water Act?
DEVINEWell, the good news is that the Clean Water Act doesn't impose one-size-fits-all requirements. It is implemented by the states. And with respect to these kinds of improvements -- we're talking about some pretty simple things to start with.
DEVINEStarting with setting targets for how much of these pollutants need to be in the water, numeric limits on nitrogen and phosphorous that -- so we know what we're shooting at. We don't even know what to measure, really, or what our targets ought to be. And in addition to that, we have had, for the last decade or so, real uncertainly about whether there's protection under the Clean Water Act for small streams and wetlands, which can filter out these pollutants and also absorb the runoff that conveys to our larger water bodies.
REHMJon Devine, he's senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. We'll take a short break here. You can join us with questions and comments. I already have a posting on Facebook. You can join us there or send us a tweet. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the growth of algae pollution in water bodies across the country. Our first two emails, I think, address a great many people's concerns. The first from Don who says, "The statement was just made implying that just swimming in water with a cyanobacterial bloom can lead to death of dogs and farm animals as does humans. That is wrong. The toxin microcystin must be injected. It cannot pass through the skin. Strictly speaking, swimming during a bloom is dangerous because people do swallow water or breath in spray." Any comment, Annie?
SNIDERWe have seen -- I think the caller is correct that there are links between swimming in an algal bloom and ingesting it. So that's often why you hear recommendations not to swim when this bacteria or when these toxins are present. That said, we have certainly seen illnesses as a result of swimming when these bacteria are present. Senator James Inhofe got sick a couple of years ago after swimming in a lake with some of these blooms.
REHMSo in fact he -- we don't know if he swallowed the water. He could have breathed in droplets and that could be how it goes. And here's another from Denise in Rochester, N.Y. "We canoe on some very small lakes that can be covered with algae from mid to late summer. Between wet legs, getting in and out of the canoe and the occasional splash from an oar, should we be worried about toxicity," Anna Michalak?
MICHALAKSo all blooms are certainly not created equal, as was alluded to already by the other guests. What really matters for blooms that we call harmful algal blooms is precisely what it is that's growing in the water. I obviously can't speak to the lakes that the -- this person in particular canoes in but within Lake Erie, it's a species called microcystis that releases this toxin called microcystin. And this is the main source of at least the health issues that we're looking at.
MICHALAKSo for your caller I would recommend that she or he look into what equality reports of the waters that they recreate to get a sense of what's actually growing in the water.
REHMAnnie, is there any kind of alert system to the communities involved, and they may be across the country, when algae blooms become toxic?
SNIDERSo that's very much handled at the state level. States are responsible for monitoring their waterways and sending out alerts about dangerous toxins and other contaminants at beaches. EPA does have sort of an interesting app, how's my waterway app that you can download that'll tell you about the health of your particular waterway. So that's one way of getting some information. But a lot of this is, you know, at the state level.
REHMAnd to you Anna Michalak, what about climate change? To what extent do you think that's involved in the proliferation of these algae?
MICHALAKIt's difficult at this point to pinpoint exactly how much of the blame should attribute to different components. But certainly in Lake Erie there's factors such as more intense springtime storms that tend to flush more nutrients into the lake. Warmer temperatures tend to trigger these blooms potentially a little bit earlier in the year giving them more time to grow. And also wind and weather patterns, once the algae are in the lake, change the circulation of the lake and also change the mixing patterns in the lake which can either promote or slow down the blooms.
MICHALAKAnd so as all of these factors change with climate, these changes work hand in hand with changing agricultural practices and land use patterns to create these perfect storms and these conditions that are conducive to bloom growth.
REHMAnd Don Parrish, talk about the steps that farmers, for example, have taken to try to reduce the extent of the runoff and the pollution of the waters around them?
PARRISHDiane, farmers and ranchers in the State of Ohio have been very aggressive, very proactive, I think. Just last year over 2 million soil samples to make sure that they're not over-applying nutrients and making sure that they're trying to use every last pound of nutrient that they're applying to their fields and is taken off in the form of grain. They're also utilizing conservation techniques like no-till to reduce runoff so that there's more infiltration into the soils.
PARRISHThey've also just this last year enacted new legislation that certifies farmers and anyone applying nutrients so that they have kind of this adaptive management approach so that farmers are not using any more nutrient than they need, and that they're educated and continually educated on that. And then lastly, and I think something that needs to be more focused, is that we're using variable rate technology that uses satellites to help farmers precisely inject nutrients right where the plant needs it so that it does not become available to the environment.
REHMSo in your mind, are farmers blameless as far as what happened in Ohio?
PARRISHI can tell you, Diane, that total phosphorous use in Ohio has gone down 65 percent, but total soluble phosphorous has gone up. And what that says to farmers and ranchers is that we're doing something on the landscape. And whether it's farmers or whether something else is going on is causing that total soluble phosphorous to increase. And we don't know and scientists can't tell us how to stop that.
REHMSo you haven't quite answered my question. Do you believe farmers are blameless in what happened in Ohio?
PARRISHNo, ma'am. Farmers are part of the problem. They're not the entire problem.
REHMOkay. And Jon Devine, have farmers done enough to prevent this kind of outbreak?
DEVINEToledo shoes us that none of us have. The fact of the matter is that there's too much pollution going into Lake Erie, but also lakes, rivers, streams around the country that are causing these algae outbreaks that can make people sick, that can cause these dead zones. And so what we need to do is develop a suite of solutions for a suite of problems. I agree with Don on that but what we -- but at least as a first step, we need to take very common sense action.
DEVINEOne of the things that is pending at the federal level right now is a rule that would better protect small streams and wetlands, things that can filter out these pollutants and buffer them -- buffer other water bodies from the runoff and...
DEVINEIt would require that before you pollute those water bodies or destroy them by burying them under development or something like that, you would need to get a permit to minimize your impact on the landscape. And I'm sorry to say that Don's group has opposed that vigorously.
REHMWhy is that, Don Parrish?
PARRISHDiane, we're very much in favor of protecting streams. What Jon is talking about is giving the federal government, the bureaucracy the opportunity to regulate rainfall and where rainfall runs across the landscape. And in that -- the problems that would create in farm country, not only in kind of micromanaging how we use our land and the activities we conduct on it, I believe it inhibits farmers' ability to do good conservation practices. Conservation practices that they have long since worked with USDA to implement.
PARRISHThings that would work in this situation, like grass waterways. It's amazing how far onto the landscape that this regulation would reach. And I think there is a reasonable limit and a reasonable approach to protecting water but it's not everywhere that it gets wet when it rains.
SNIDERSo the situation here is a long-running problem. So the stated goal of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters. Well, what are the nation's waters? It wasn't defined in the Clean Water Act. People have looked to a definition that appeared in another law that talked about navigable waters because if you can have a boat on a water you can probably have commerce. And therefore it clearly files under federal jurisdiction under the commerce clause.
SNIDERBut when you're talking about pollution, it's pretty clear that if you want to clean up a big river you've got to look at the tributaries that are flowing into it. And the question is how far into the system does federal power reach? What about the, you know, smaller streams and creeks? What about creeks that don't flow year around, only when it rains or when there's snowmelt. What about wetlands that aren't near one of these waters, you know. And you're not sure if that water's making its way into the bigger rivers?
SNIDERSo this has been a long-running question. And there were two Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that tried to deal with it and really just confused the situation more. And so right now regulators and industry are having to make decisions in the field looking at an individual stream or creek and saying, does this thing connect to a bigger water? And so do you need a permit if you want to discharge a pollutant into it? Do you need a permit if you want to fill it in? Is there a role for federal power or is that something where the states should be in control?
SNIDERAnd so after years and years of confusion and failed efforts by congress to deal with this, the Obama Administration this spring proposed a regulation that would put more of these streams and creeks in particular under federal power automatically. So rather than having to go out and make a case by case decision in the field, they would automatically come under federal jurisdiction.
REHMAnd there's a discussion period that ends what, in October.
SNIDER...October. Yeah, October 20.
REHMAnd what kinds of discussions have there been?
SNIDERWell, there's been a robust discussion on a number of those...
SNIDER...as you can tell. So Don alluded to some of the particular concerns around the agricultural sector. So this regulation has the potential to affect a number of sectors, home building, construction, oil and gas development, coal development, anything that might happen that would impact a stream or a creek across the landscape, right. But agriculture is sort of a different animal.
SNIDERSo under the Clean Water Act agriculture has exemptions from some but not all of the provisions of the Clean Water Act. And so there's questions about what this regulation would mean for farmers. And the Obama Administration issued an interpretive rule -- who knew what that was before this was issued -- that was meant to explain what the regulation would mean for farmers and ranchers. But at this point even the EPA administrator herself acknowledges that that rule really just confused things more.
SNIDERSo you've got questions about whether certain conservation practices are exempt. And those are things that, you know, EPA seems to have wanted to encourage people to do. But this rule that they've put out has people wondering what's allowed and what's not.
REHMSo everything is still up in the air, not only a definition of what's called for here but exactly the wording and the interpretation of the rule when it's finally issued. So there you have it all laid out in front of you. And we're going to take a short break. When we come back, you can weigh in on all of this. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Stay with us.
REHMAnd we have a question here from the website. It says "What is the relationship, if any, to the ethanol mandate for gasoline and fertilizer runoff?" Can you respond to that, Anna Michalak?
MICHALAKYes, I can. There is somewhat of a relationship in the sense that corn is a more fertilizer-intensive crop relative to the other major crops in the U.S. So if you farm an acre with corn you're going to use more fertilizer than if you farm wheat or soy bean. Nationally we've seen a substantial increase in corn acreage over the last decade or so precisely due to the push for more biofuels production.
MICHALAKUntil a couple of years ago, interestingly we hadn't actually seen an increase in the area draining into Lake Erie. But as of 2012 or so we're also seeing an increase in corn acreage. So there is a relationship through the amount of land being used for agriculture and through the amount of fertilizer that's being used to farm corn.
REHMSo, Don Parrish, sort of a double whammy there.
PARRISHI might take a little exception to what Anna said. I don't think we're farming any new areas. We may be shifting the land that we're producing corn and soy beans on and maybe biasing our production a little bit more towards corn. But I would also argue that, you know, there's a misperception that the nutrients are being mismanaged because I think we actually know more about managing nutrients for corn than we do even the other crops. And I think we can be more precise in how we manage that nutrient.
MICHALAKTwo quick points. I am not implying that more lane is being turned into farmland but there is a federal program called the Conservation Reserve Program whereby some farm fields are being left unfarmed. And nationally we're seeing a decrease in the amount of farmland that's within this Conservation Reserve Program. In other words, more of the farmland is actually being farmed. The second quick point that I want to make is, I agree with Don that when we looked at the Lake Erie Basin we don't see, from a scientific standpoint, much evidence for an overuse of fertilizer overall. I think that's absolutely valid.
MICHALAKPart of the interesting aspect of this is that some of the conservation practices that Don mentioned, like conservation tillage and no-till, which were put into place for environmental reasons to limit erosion, to limit stripping of soil from the farm fields can actually, under some cases, exacerbate how many nutrients are being flushed into the lake because the fertilizer ends up sitting more on top of the farm fields. And so if a heavy rain comes, it flushes that fertilizer right into the waterways.
MICHALAKAnd so I empathize to some extent with Don in the sense that from the farmers' perspective they feel like they have been very responsive to some push from the environmental concerns side. But at the same time, again, one solution does not fit all. And so if the timing of the fertilizer application happens to coincide with heavy precipitation, these no-till practices can actually lead to more runoff.
REHMI see. Annie.
SNIDERThe other factor at play here, which I'm sure Don will want to jump in on, is some of this confusion around the scope of the Clean Water Act a region of large concern, and it's not directly related to Ohio, is the Prairie Potholes Region. So one of the categories of waters that's been left uncertain following the confusion around the scope of the Clean Water Act is isolated wetlands, geographically isolated wetlands. So a wetland that doesn't -- you don't see a clear, you know, link between the water in that wetland and a larger downstream water.
SNIDERAnd so the Prairie Potholes Region is a very ecologically important area. It's something -- you know, some huge percentage of the ducks that fly through the country use this as habitat. So Ducks Unlimited is very interested in this. Well, in recent years following the confusion around the scope of the Clean Water Act and whether or not it applies to these geographically isolated wetlands, we've seen a lot of this habitat in the Prairie Potholes Region disappearing. And a lot of it has, in fact, been converted to cropland.
REHMAll right. Short break here, and after that we will come to your calls, your emails. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. We'll go right to the phones. Let's go to Ericka, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Hi, you're on the air.
ERICKAHi. Thank you for taking my call.
ERICKALast year our Daytona Beach News Journal, they published a report on algae bloom invading our waterways, even the beach areas. They listed the causes as runoff from industries or outdated septic tanks, fertilizer. Now, we've had a record number of dolphins, manatees and seagulls that have died. A healthy 58-year-old man, last December, was fishing on our Halifax River.
ERICKAAnd he went into the water to retrieve a fish and he died three days later from some kind of a bacterial infection. The state's official solution is to do more studies, but we're beyond studies. We need action.
REHMAll right. Annie?
SNIDERSo Florida has particular problems. I think we've talked a little bit about how temperature plays into algae blooms. And so Florida is prime for problems. They also have the added complexity that the, you know, basically the entire state of Florida, south of Lake Okeechobee, southern portion of the state was totally replumbed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1920s and '30s.
SNIDERSo what was formally sheet flow, flowing down, now gets sent off through two waterways or canals to the coasts. And so there's a kind of a concentration of nutrients that gets pushed off, you know, real fast, into a contained area. So last year, in fact, there was massive problems with algae blooms in southern Florida on the east and west coasts that caused a huge public outcry.
REHMAll right. And here's a question about another cause, saying, "In the last 20 years, around 50 concentrated animal feeding operations have been established in the Lake Erie drainage basin. The problem is waste disposal. Manure and urine moved with water, not commercial fertilizer application. Anna, how much of that do you think is relevant?
MICHALAKFor feeding the algae blooms themselves, nitrogen and especially phosphorus for fresh-water systems are the main issues of concern. Certainly pollution caused by drainage of urine and manure causes a whole slew of other problems that we are concerned about as well. But in terms of the algae blooms themselves, phosphorus runoff is really the primary aspect that we're looking at.
REHMDon Parrish, I know you wanted to jump in.
PARRISHA couple things. To begin with, 20 operations is a pretty small footprint in that watershed. I mean it's huge. But that being aside, people can be concerned. Those operations are very well regulated. So people should have a lot of comfort in knowing that those operations are very tightly regulated by the state. The second thing I want to point out is -- I talked about aging infrastructure. And I have two points I would like to make. The first is we made most of our investments in the '70s. That's when we built the space shuttle.
PARRISHWe started flying the space shuttle in 1991. We quit flying it just a couple of years ago. The same thing has happened to the infrastructure around this country. And there's one city, Detroit, in the Lake Erie Basin, that this year alone has had over 15 billion gallons of raw sewage go into the lake. This year alone. Now, again, that's infrastructure. That's a story that we're kind of looking beyond here. But to put that into perspective, that's 484 Valdezes, Exxon Valdezes of raw sewage that spilled into the lake.
DEVINEWell, with respect to these large industrial feeding operations, they are not -- I would respectfully disagree -- well regulated. There is effectively a loophole with respect to the pollution that they spread on fields from -- which is manure. And when it run -- when it rains and runs off that can contaminate our waterways. These facilities generate waste on the scale of a small city. Slightly bigger than 3,500-head cattle operation is going to produce more waste than Galveston, Texas. And the waste gets nowhere near the same amount of treatment.
DEVINESo I would say that they are part of the problem and that they need standards set at the national level that are consistent from watershed to watershed. With respect to infrastructure, Don's absolutely right. We need to do better at controlling overflows of sewage and flow from just our urban slobber coming off roads and parking lots. And the best way to do that is to design our cities so that they are more absorbent, that they infiltrate water where it falls, effectively.
REHMAnnie, do you…
SNIDERCan I comment?
REHM…want to add to that?
SNIDERWell, to the point about infrastructure, it's absolutely true, there are gaping needs in our countries infrastructure. When the Clean Water Act was passed it was a grant program. It's turned into a loan program. And every year the federal funds that help communities make these upgrades are targeted in the budgeting process.
SNIDERSo EPA has estimated that over the next 20 years $384 billion worth of investment will be needed just in drinking water. And $298 billion in wastewater. So huge amounts. And this at a time when a lot of communities are really cash-strapped. So that is absolutely a piece of the problem.
REHMAll right. To Lancaster, Pa. Hi, Carol.
CAROLHi. I wanted to bring up corn ethanol again. I know you all touched on it a little bit, but I just wanted to point out when you're talking about common sense and the federal government's involvement in the situation, I mean this is a problem with the Renewable Fuel Standard. It's constantly being debated. I think it's still being debated right now -- what that level is. And for people who may not know, this is how much biofuels should be added to gasoline. I mean it's been shown that ethanol is not working, but we continued to have this mandate to use it.
CAROLAnd when we're looking at this, I mean, it always sounds like it's the farmers' fault. But I think we have to look at the federal government here and the fact that 40 percent of our corn in this country goes to ethanol. So I just wanted to bring it up and put the (unintelligible) some blame in this situation by continuing to have this Renewable Fuel Standard.
REHMAll right. And, Annie, do you want to comment?
SNIDERWell, I think the caller, you know, caller touched on it. It is an incredibly political topic. I can guarantee that there are a lot of lobbyists working on this here in Washington, D.C.
REHMAll right. Here is a posting on Facebook from Kristen, who says, "I work in Toledo. I started getting very sick two weeks before the water ban. I've had all the symptoms for two weeks. I was given meds to help with gastric pain. I still am not 100 percent. There are many people who've had the same reactions as I." Anna Michalak, does that sound familiar?
MICHALAKI'm not a medical professional by any stretch of the imagination.
MICHALAKBut I would refer them to their doctors. I -- my understanding is that the problems in Toledo do not go back as far as two weeks, but, again, I would not want to speak to that in detail. Could I make a quick comment about something Don said a few minutes ago…
MICHALAK…while I have the -- while I have your attention?
MICHALAKI think the infrastructure comments were absolutely valid. In Lake Erie in particular, we can even see this from satellites, that the water coming in from the Detroit River actually acts more to dilute the blooms, rather than to feed the blooms. This is because the volume of water is so much greater than the relative amount of nutrients in that water. And I think comparing volumes to the Exxon Valdez, it's somewhat misleading because you can't compare oil to water that has…
PARRISHTo raw sewage?
MICHALAK…phosphorus in it.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Tim, in St. Paris, Ohio. Hi, you're on the air.
TIMYes. Good morning, Diane…
TIM…and your guests. I was an owner of 85 acres of farmland in St. Paris, Ohio, north of Dayton by about 30 miles. And we did not farm it directly, but we had a cash rent farmer. And I noticed, having lived up in this area for 10, 15 years now, that there used to be a lot of buffer zones around the farmlands, due to a cash incentive program. And I might -- this might not be in existence since I have not been in farming directly or indirectly, as I might say, for the last five, six years.
TIMAnd so one of your guests might correct me on this. But I do believe that that program might still be in exist -- it might not. But I've noticed that farmers no longer utilize that because they get more money from farming from property line to property line, as opposed to establishing a buffer zone with guidelines and then taking the money from the government.
REHMAll right. Jon Devine?
DEVINEWell, I think that's right. I think Don probably can speak to it better than I, about the economics of these decisions. But obviously buffer strips around farmlands are a particularly good way of trying to trap these nutrients before they get into waterways. And one of the things that would be -- that would happen from some of these very common sense solutions, like setting targets for how much water can be -- how much pollution can be in the water, would be that states would create plans that would include things like buffer strips.
REHMYou know, I'm getting awfully concerned as we sit here and talk about all this, about the soil and about all of this runoff going directly into the soil. At some level, surely, that runoff is going to hit water tables deep down. Am I wrong, Annie?
SNIDERI think that's probably a much better question for the scientists here. I do know that in Florida we have seen nutrient pollution -- the aquifer in Florida is particularly high and there's a porous limestone in between. And I know we've seen the nutrients get down into there, but it's probably a better question for the scientists.
REHMWhat about that, Anna?
MICHALAKOn the face of it, the nutrients going into the soil is precisely what you would want on farmland because then those nutrients are then available for the crops to use in order to grow. Within the Lake Erie Basin itself the vast majority of the nutrients do come from the rivers that go into the lake. So, in other words, it is runoff on top of the farm fields going into the waterways and then going into the lake. The other factor is that in terms of water supply, cities, such as Toledo, use water from the lake. And so that is where we're most concerned about the water quality.
REHMAnd what other bodies of water, Anna, are you particularly concerned about?
MICHALAKDo mean nationally or within…
MICHALAKNationally. If you look at a national map of areas that are affected by what we call eutrophication. So too many nutrients going into the water. It literally parallels everywhere where you see either large pockets of population or large pockets of agriculture. And so essentially, in the U.S., it's the entire U.S. coast.
MICHALAKIf you look at it globally, again, around Europe, around highly populated areas you see related problems either from blooms or from dead zones. And this is precisely due to how intensely we're using land, both for urban infrastructure and also for agriculture.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Annie Snider, explain dead zones for us.
SNIDERSo dead zones are created when you have an algae bloom, that as it -- when it decomposes it sucks up the oxygen that's in the water. And so without the oxygen it drives away or kills any aquatic life in the area. So the big one that we think about is the one in the Gulf of Mexico. So, you know, nutrients wash down the Mississippi River every year and wash into the Gulf of Mexico.
SNIDERThere's a big algae bloom. And as it decomposes it drives away life. And this year we actually just got the number in. It is about 5,000 square miles. So the size of Connecticut, which is smaller than it's been in other years.
REHMAnd what can we expect in the future, as you look at bodies of water across the country?
SNIDERWell, I think it depends on what we do from a regulatory standpoint. It depends on what happens with climate change.
REHMAre you concerned about that, Don Parrish?
PARRISHWell, a couple of points I want to make. And one is, I would ask Anna, does she think -- particularly for Lake Erie -- does she think scientists can agree on a quick fix on something that farmers could do between now and next year to actually make an impact?
MICHALAKI think that's a great question because I think what we need to be doing is looking at win-win solutions. Short-term solutions are going to be difficult, no matter what we do. One thing that is in everyone's interests is for farmers not to be fertilizing immediately before a large rainstorm. Because that's when see all of the fertilizer being flushed.
PARRISHAnd farmers can commit to trying to avoid that. I think we will rally our members to do that.
MICHALAKOh, no, absolutely. So I completely agree with you, Don. And what happened, for example, in 2011, when we saw this completely record-breaking bloom, was that there were so few short breaks without rain that farmers had to fertilize. So I think farmers and scientists communicating better about being able to anticipate when is the prime time for applying fertilizer without it washing off is the only really short-term gain that I can see.
REHMAnd what about long term?
MICHALAKIn the long term, I think we need to develop management strategies that take into account these multiple environmental impacts. So not just erosion, which we were looking at historically, but also the nutrient runoff. And to do this within the context of our understanding of how climate is changing. Precipitation patterns, temperatures, wind patterns and so on.
PARRISHAnna, would you…
MICHALAKSo really to recognize the complexity of the system and to develop management strategies that work within that changing system.
REHMVery quickly, Don.
PARRISHWould you say variable rate technology, where farmers are more precisely using nutrients would be a good step in that direction?
MICHALAKI think that anything that reduces the amount of fertilizer being flushed off the farm fields is what we ultimately need to do within the context of how rain patterns are changing.
REHMAll right. And we'll have to leave it at that. I'm sure there will be incidents in the future, judging from what all of you are saying. We'll follow this subject. Anna Michalak of Stanford University, Don Parrish, he's with the regulatory relations for American Farm Bureau Federation, Annie Snider is a reporter covering water issues for Greenwire and E&E Daily, and Jon Devine is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. What a program. Thank you all.
DEVINEThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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