Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Blooming Mess
distributed 8/8/14 - ©2014

Toledo, Ohio, told residents to stay away from tap water a week ago. For three days, the city's water supply was contaminated by a toxin from a bloom of algae in Lake Erie.

Depending on the sources, you can hear that algae blooms like this are normal or abnormal, that they are caused by climate change, modern agriculture, and/or invasive species. I have not seen anything -- yet -- blaming the Obama administration or space aliens.

The Toledo algae bloom provides an interesting case study for reflections on the ecological truth that all things are connected, as well as some musings about economics and the working of God.

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I started exploring the many factors in the Lake Erie situation through a posting to the Earth Observatory series from NASA. Every Tuesday evening, they send out a short email with links to satellite photos about climate and the environment. I always find it fun and interesting to glance at some of the stunning pictures, and read the related articles.

This week's collection of links pointed to a pair of photos showing green gunk around the western end of the lake, and had a nicely balanced analysis of what is going on. They say, "For at least fifty years, phytoplankton and algae blooms have been a regular occurrence in summer on Lake Erie. The microscopic, floating plants generally start to flourish in June and July as the water warms and stratifies, and their numbers typically peak in August and September. But it's not every year that a bloom leads to the shutdown of water supplies in an American or Canadian city." (NOAA also points out their own scientists predicted a significant bloom would occur this year in western Lake Erie.)

Three factors influence the size and danger of the annual algae blooms.

The amount of phosphorus in the lake makes a big difference. In recent years, the largest source of phosphorus is fertilizer that washes off of agricultural fields. An article by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones has a pair of charts showing the close match across 13 years between the amount of phosphorus runoff and the size of the algae bloom. The Guardian reports that 2/3 of the phosphorus in Lake Erie came from crop land. The Guardian also says that a recent change in the kinds of fertilizers used may have increased the amount of easily-dissolved phosphorus, leading to higher run-off. And, there is debate about whether a shift to no-till farming techniques has caused more fertilizer to wash off of fields.

The Toledo Blade gives some valuable historical and political insights to the problem. "In the 1960s, when Lake Erie was nearly declared a 'dead' body of water because of how excessive algae robbed so much oxygen from the water column, contributing to massive fish die-offs from other forms of industrial pollution, it was an easier fix. The region installed better sewage controls." Those controls were required under the Clean Water Act. Federal legislation also required that phosphorus be removed from products like laundry detergent. The combination of less phosphorus and better treatment helped control water pollution all across the country. Municipal sewage is considered a "point source" of pollution, and is tightly controlled. Agriculture is a "nonpoint source" and is not regulated.

So agriculture -- with big fields of just a few crops (corn and beans) that require lots of fertilizer, and with farming methods that don't control runoff well -- is one reason why Lake Erie has seen a return of big algae blooms. Climate change is another factor.

The New Republic provides a succinct quote from The National Climate Assessment's description of impacts in the Great Lakes. "Higher temperatures, increases in precipitation, and lengthened growing seasons favor production of blue-green and toxic algae that can harm fish, water quality, habitats, and aesthetics, and could heighten the impact of invasive species already present."

The invasive species in this case are the "non-native zebra mussels and another exotic that has displaced them, the similar -- yet larger -- quagga mussels." The mussels don't filter phosphorus from the water (as the native species do), and the mussels seem to eat more of benign kinds of algae, allowing the varieties that produce toxins to proliferate.

Agricultural practices, climate change and invasive species all heighten the scope and danger of the normal cycles of algae blooms in the Great Lakes. There is no one cause, and no simple solution -- although cutting down on the fertilizer run-off is essential.

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There are powerful and prominent people in the US -- including many members of Congress -- who decry almost all forms of government regulation. They are confident that the free market will guide our society to optimal outcomes. For at least some of these people, this is a matter of religious faith, with a conviction that "the market" is a predominant way that God works in the world.

The market, however, has not led to good outcomes in the Great Lakes. Farmers are making rational economic choices when they use too much fertilizer, or manage their fields in ways that increase the run-off of pollution. Climate change is one of the great market failures of all time, when carbon pollution from power plants, transportation, deforestation, etc. is never priced. And those invasive mussels turned up in the lakes because ships pumping out bilge water from other parts of the world had not economic incentive to filter or treat the water.

The market, left to itself, has amplified the problem of toxic algae in Lake Erie. Pollution from fields, smokestacks and bilge are all "externalites" that don't show up on the balance sheets of those who cause the pollution, but that impose big costs to others.

The residents of Toledo had to deal with significant out-of-pocket costs for bottled water, as well as all kinds of indirect costs in lost work and inconvenience when the water system shut down. And they will have to deal with future costs for more rigorous and diverse water treatment systems if these toxic blooms become common.

As the Toledo Blade described in recounting the history of pollution and algae in the Great Lakes, regulation -- especially the Clean Water Act of 1972 -- were essential in addressing the externalities of pollution. Some products were banned, and costs were imposed to get pollutants out of waterways.

This week's news from Toledo gives us insights into the complex interplay of biological systems, agriculture and other big industries, and climate change. The toxic green gunk in Lake Erie shows us how all things are connected. That gunk also shows us that the free market, without thoughtful regulation, will lead us into a world with unintended but drastic consequences.

Adjustments to the Clean Water Act have been in the news recently, with great controversy about regulation. Last week's Notes talked about the EPA's proposed regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants (which I said need to be strengthened).

As people of faith, we need to be clear that a free market, with no regulation, does not embody God's intentions for a just and sustainable world.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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