bloom of algae in Lake Erie has affected the drinking water of about 500,000
residents in the Toledo, Ohio area. Residents
are being instructed that their water is unsafe to drink or use for
cooking. The lake looks bright green due
to the abundant growth of microcystis, which contaminates the water with a
toxin called microcystin. The maximum level of microcystin thought safe in
drinking water is 1 part per billion (ppb), and the water now has between 1.5
and 2.4 ppb of microcystin. This type
of bloom typically peaks in mid-September, so the water quality problem in Lake
Erie may get much worse before it gets better.
most obvious problem is that half a million people are without safe drinking
water due to this algae bloom. In
addition to the health effects, this lack of safe water will cause tremendous
economic disruption. The bloom also impacts
the health of the ecosystem in Lake Erie.
This has direct human impact through loss of recreational activity on
the lake (swimming, fishing, etc.) and direct effect on the long-term health of
the ecosystem. The problem was caused by
the tremendous influx of phosphorus to the lake, largely from the agricultural
production in the region.
came about because of the large-scale agriculture production, so benefitting is
everyone who gets inexpensive food. Also
benefitting are the farmers who are able to use large-amounts of phosphorus on
their land, and harm the lake without being held responsible for that
harm. This includes farmers who are
producing corn that is converted into alcohol for use as a fuel. Thus, people who use that product, and have
lower energy prices (primarily for gasoline) are benefitting from the practices
that have resulted in this major environmental problem to Lake Erie.
residents of the area are being protected from the adverse health effects of
the water by being warned not to use it for drinking or cooking. Of course, that imposes enormous disruption
and costs to people’s lives. At the
treatment plant, treatment is being explored to reduce the level of microcystin
to acceptable levels. The longer term
solution is to reduce phosphorus input to the lake, which would involve
changing agricultural practices. Almost
nothing is being done currently with regard to finding a long term
I think two
things should be done to deal with this problem. The simplest is to upgrade the water
treatment at the local treatment plants to be able to remove this
toxicant. Technology is available and
practical, although of course not being free.
However, the additional cost of providing clean water (which means
people will have higher water bills) is much less than the economic cost
imposed by not having safe drinking water.
difficult problem is how to reduce phosphorus contamination of the lake. This would involve changing farming
practices, and economic incentives. For
example, one thing we could do quickly is eliminate subsidizing farmers to
convert corn into alcohol. This practice
means we are producing cheaper gasoline while ignoring the cost of polluting
the lake, thus providing an incentive for people to use more gasoline. This helps no one, except individual
farmers. Of course, we must think about
individual farmers, but this practice simply is not reasonable (much like we cannot
allow companies to throw hazardous waste into the lake, even though that would
decrease their cost of waste disposal.) Instead, economic incentives should be
provided to farmers who are growing food to use techniques that minimize the
runoff of fertilizers. This would
include the more careful application of fertilizers so that nutrients are taken
up in the soil and subsequently into the crops, rather than applying excess
fertilizer with some ultimately running off into the lake.
solutions would make food and gasoline more expensive. However, they would more accurately reflect
the true cost of production. Now, the
price of food and gasoline are unreasonable low, as they do not reflect their
environmental costs. Better to pay a
little more for food and gasoline now, rather than pay less but have much
larger costs associated with a sick Lake Erie.