Communities Take Action to Protect Great Lakes The five Great Lakes — Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior — are said to hold one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water. The lakes are threatened by fluctuating water levels, invasive species and pollution — and nearby communities are looking for ways to help.
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Communities Take Action to Protect Great Lakes

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Communities Take Action to Protect Great Lakes

Communities Take Action to Protect Great Lakes

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. If you stand on the shores of Lake Michigan in the city of Milwaukee on a clear, brilliantly sunny day like it is today, and has been for much of this week, it's not hard to trick yourself into thinking that you're at the edge of an ocean. Blue water stretching out as far as the eye can see, until they merge with the distant horizon. But don't let the vastness of Lake Michigan fool you. What looks like an ocean is the fifth-largest freshwater lake in the world. Lake Michigan, along with Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario make up the largest freshwater lake system in the world and account for 20 percent of all the planet's fresh surface water. That's a lot of water. And that, say the residents of the Great Lakes region, is a resource worth protecting.

And just this week, lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan passed the Great Lakes Compact. That's an agreement that lays out rules for conservation and water use for the eight states bordering the lakes. A parallel agreement does the same for Ontario and Quebec, the two Canadian provinces that touch the lakes. Now, once the two remaining Great Lake states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, approve the compact - and they have yet to pass it in their houses of congress - it goes to the national Congress, where the passage there could make it the law of the land.

So, today we're broadcasting from the Milwaukee Public Museum and we're going to be talking about the Great Lakes Compact from the vantage point of Wisconsin, a state bordered by two of the lakes, Lake Michigan to the east, Lake Superior to the north. How far will the compact go in protecting this resource for the people in the region? We're also going to check in on the health of the lake: from falling lake levels to invasive species, residues of drugs and personal care products, to polluted runoff from agricultural, residential, and urban areas, the lakes are suffering stresses that could threaten their long-term liability.

We'll talk about what can be done to keep the lakes healthy. And if you'd like to join our discussion, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK and if you're here in the audience at the Milwaukee Public Museum, you can step up to the microphones which are on the left and right sides, right there on the aisles. And if you want more information, you're always welcome and invited to surf over to ScienceFriday.com, where we have links to our topics. And also to join us in Second Life for today. Let me introduce my guests. Peter Annin is the author of "The Great Lakes Water Wars," published by Island Press in 2006. He is a former correspondent for Newsweek and the associate director of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources in Madison, Wisconsin. Welcome to the program.

Mr. PETER ANNIN (Newsweek Correspondent, Author): Great to be here, Ira. Thanks.

FLATOW: Thank you. Michael Hahn is the chief environmental engineer at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL HAHN (Chief Environmental Engineer, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission): Thank you.

FLATOW: Rebecca Klaper is the Shaw assistant scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Welcome to the program.

Ms. REBECCA KLAPER (Assistant Scientist, Great Lakes WATER Institute, University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And Val Klump is the director and senior scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute. Welcome to the program.

Mr. VAL KLUMP (Director and Senior Scientist, Great Lakes WATER Institute): Thank you.

FLATOW: I want to begin with you, Peter, because it's a terrific book, and you open the book, in the front, you lay out a terrific description of the importance, the scope, the dimensions, the impact of the Great Lakes as you see it. Could you read those first few paragraphs?

Mr. ANNIN: Sure, I'd be happy to, but before I do, I just want to officially welcome you to the great state of Wisconsin. We have the largest lake by surface area in the world to our north, we have the largest lake within the boundaries of the United States to our east, and we have the largest watershed in the United States, to our west. So we are all about water here in Wisconsin. And the legislature was, as you mentioned, just passed the Compact this week, but it had been sort of stalled and stagnated till they heard that Science Friday was coming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, I think that's true. I'm going to create that myth. I'll think that we'll pass that myth down...

Mr. ANNIN: Makes me wonder if you're on the short list for vice presidential candidates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: If asked, I will decline.

(Soundbite of applause and laughter)

Mr. ANNIN: So, yeah...

FLATOW: Well, with that introduction, you have to read the whole book now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And you mentioned in your book the tortuous history of this Compact. We'll get into that a little bit. But read the description of the area that, as you're standing and looking there.

Mr. ANNIN: Sure. Thank you. Today, I stand on the shores of Lake Superior, and I see a unique, fragile, cold-water ecosystem. I see the largest surface area of delicious fresh water in the world. I see a lake so deep, more than 1300 feet, that her steepest underwater canyon is the lowest spot on the North American continent. I see a lake so large that she could swallow all four of the other Great Lakes and still have room to spare. I see the mother of all lakes, the headwaters of a great basin that holds one-fifth of all the fresh surface water on the planet. I see a five-lake ecosystem that contains enough water to cover the Lower 48 - every American acre south of the Canadian border - with 9.5 feet of crystal clear Great Lakes water.

I see an ecosystem that quenches the thirst of billions of creatures and some 40 million people in the U.S. and two Canadian provinces. Today, I stand on the shores of Lake Superior and I see a naive innocent, a voluptuous bounty on the verge of violation. I see millions of angry, parched people from far-flung venues who view undeveloped water as a wasted opportunity. I see dry-land farmers clamoring with sharp spigots, claiming they can't feed the world without more irrigation. I see thousands of massive supertankers lining up on behalf of millions of thirsty Asians. I see endless Romanesque canals carrying water to manicured lawns in a burgeoning, unsustainable Sun Belt. I see anxious scientists who worry about the transformations that climate change could bring.

I see Great Lakes politicians destructively bickering among themselves, ultimately threatening the lakes they hope to save. I see urban voters - with no connection to land, water, or wildlife - who elect their dilettante peers to public office, impacting water policy everywhere. I see countless people inexplicably bypassing cold, refreshing water from the tap, so that they can spend more money on water in a bottle. I see subsidized farmers who waste water on inefficient irrigation by growing surplus crops that the nation doesn't need. I see international entrepreneurs rubbing their hands with the thought of getting rich from something that comes out of the ground for free.

I see wasteful water practices throughout the Great Lakes Basin that historians will look back upon with scorn. I see water - clear, cold, luscious water - that most see the value in taking, and few see the value in leaving. I see millions upon millions of Great Lakes residents who underestimate the struggle that awaits them. Today, when I stand on the shores of Lake Superior, I don't see a lake. I see a sprawling, deep blue battleground that stretches from Duluth, Minnesota, to Trois Rivieres, Quebec, and I wonder, who will win the war?

FLATOW: So you foresee it, and you talk about it in your book, all these stresses on the lake, all the people who want the water here, and the people who are very precious, feel that the water is very precious to them, don't they, Rebecca?

Ms. KLAPER: Yes, they do.

FLATOW: They don't want to part with any of it if they don't have to.

Ms. KLAPER: Yeah. People - if you ask people in Wisconsin and the other Great Lakes states, especially if they live near one of the lakes, they definitely value that as a resource, either through - for recreation, for fishing, for food, as their drinking water resource. And people are very connected to these water bodies, and identify with them as part of their culture.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. And so, they - so, to all of you, this compact is intended to take care of those fears, would that be correct?

Ms. KLAPER: Yeah. It's kind of a visionary document, that's being passed by, hopefully all of the Great Lakes states, and two provinces in Canada that border the states, that will ultimately protect the waters by limiting who can take water out of those Great Lakes to those that are within the watershed of the Great Lakes.

FLATOW: And the Canadians feel they fit in with this?

Ms. KLAPER: Yeah. There are - the Canadian provinces actually, were some of the first to protest some of the major withdrawals that were proposed by some of the Asian companies, for taking water out of the Great Lakes and shipping it overseas.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. And once all these states that are part of the compact pass it, it goes to the U.S. Congress?

Ms. KLAPER: Right. In order to become a law officially, it has to go through Congress as well.

FLATOW: Is it expected to easily to pass there?

Ms. KLAPER: That's a good question. And Peter might actually be able to answer that even a little bit better than I would.

FLATOW: Peter, what do you think?

Mr. ANNIN: Well, what Congress is saying is, if you're going to get us the compact, try and get it to us before 2010, because the Great Lakes region lost nine seats in the eight Great Lakes states from Minnesota to New York in the last census. And it's anticipated that the region will lose many more seats in the next census in 2010. So, they're saying if you're going to get it to us, get it to us before 2010.

FLATOW: Because those new seats may be in the southwest, with the Sun Belt, and they say, hey, we may want some of that water.

Mr. ANNIN: That's exactly right. That's the fear anyway.

FLATOW: And they have tried to ship the water around various ways over the years.

Mr. ANNIN: Well, there've been - there's been a lot of wide-eyed schemes and plans. There have been a lot of comments. The most recent one that really rattled the region was when Governor Richardson of New Mexico was a presidential candidate. And he said, during a meeting with the editorial board at the Las Vegas Sun, that states like Wisconsin are "awash in water," quote, unquote, and that the nation should embark upon a national water plan that might examine ways to share this water with other parts of the country. So, that got the editorial writers hopping up around here.

FLATOW: How much of the water - and I ask all of you - how much of the water is replaced every year? You lose it to evaporation, people using it. Val, how much...

Mr. KLUMP: It's about one percent. And that's part of the difficulty with the Great Lakes, is that I think we've oversold the vastness of it. It - despite its size, it's a surprisingly fragile system. So, for example, the water residence time in Lake Michigan is a hundred years.

So, anything we toss, leak, or let get into the system - I always say, if you let it go in today, there's a good chance you'll drink it tomorrow. And these are also - so these are closed basins, so that's one issue. Another issue is that they're relatively young, in terms of evolutionary time. They have very simple food chains, and they're very susceptible to perturbation by species which come from outside. There are some 200 exotic species have invaded these lakes and dramatically changed the food web.

FLATOW: We'll get to all these issues, and come back, and talk more, and take your questions about the Great Lakes, and why they're so valuable, and why people want to get their water from there. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the Great Lakes, coming to you from Milwaukee, Wisconsin with my guests Peter Annin, Michael Hahn, Rebecca Klaper, and Val Klump. Our number 1-800-989-8255.

Mike, in some of the local communities, the water doesn't drain to Lake Michigan. Waukesha is one of those towns, and it drains into the Mississippi River basin, so what does Waukesha do about this sort of thing? Do they feel like they're left out?

Mr. HAHN: Well, it's been a topic of much conversation lately, and we're in the process of working on a water supply plan for our entire region, not just the city of Waukesha, but the entire region and, you know, that subcontinental divide is as close as three miles, or even a little less to Lake Michigan in the southern part of our region, but is as much as 20 miles away in the northern; however, all those communities on the west side cannot readily get access to Lake Michigan water.

The purpose of our plan is to look at a sustainable way of developing the water resources and the water supply for communities such as Waukesha, and others as well. Waukesha being a community outside of the Great Lake space but in a straddling county, under the compact there is a provision where they could obtain Lake Michigan water. One of the main provisions there is that it be returned back to the lake, and that's one of the options that's being looked at under our plan, but there are many other options that would not even look at extending water supply from Lake Michigan across that divide.

FLATOW: And Peter Annin, let's talk about the compact. Who determines who takes water from the lakes? Explain that process.

Mr. ANNIN: Yes, the compact is essentially a ban on diversion of Great Lakes water outside of the Great Lakes basin, the soup bowl rim that surrounds the five Great Lakes, with limited exceptions. That's the bottom line. It's a ban on diversions outside the Great Lakes basin, with limited exceptions. Those two key exceptions are straddling communities, a community that sits right on top of the soup bowl rim, and a straddling county.

FLATOW: So, half in, half out.

Mr. ANNIN: Right.

FLATOW: Exactly.

Mr. ANNIN: And then the county - a community that's in a county that happens to straddle the soup bowl rim. A community can apply for water from their local governor under the compact and get permission to divert water outside the basin, as Mike said, as long as they return the water after it's used: treat it to Clean Water Act standards and return the water after its use.

A straddling county has a higher bar. They also have to agree to return the water, and to practice conservation, but they have to receive the approval of all eight Great Lakes governors, not just their home governors, so it's a - it's because it's farther away from the soup bowl rim, that they have a higher bar. If you are not in a straddling community, and if you're not in a straddling county, you don't have a ticket to the dance. You can't even ask for Great Lakes water.

FLATOW: And it's very well - I mean, it's held very close to the chest of everybody here, isn't it? I mean, you talk about all the history of how long it's taken to argue this out, but one thing is for sure, is no one wants to give up a drop they don't have to.

Mr. ANNIN: Well, it's - there's a few things. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, we are defined by water here. People in the west are defined by their mountains, or their old growth forests that are left, or coastal areas are defined by their oceans, etc. We are defined here by the Great Lakes in particular, and so, these are the talismans, the ecological, the industrial, the sociological talismans that we hang on to very tightly here, and so yes, we feel very protective of it, but we also look in horror, around the country and the world, at other watersheds that have been abused and thrashed by public policy in the past.

FLATOW: You talk about a lake, a very famous lake in Russia, Soviet Union it was.

Mr. ANNIN: That's right, the Aral Sea is a classic example.

FLATOW: The Aral Sea.

Mr. ANNIN: And then closer to home, you know, the Colorado River regularly does not flow all the way to the sea, so there are plenty of examples that really, for water people, we can - we find to be quite disturbing, actually.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. Val Klump, let's talk about the science of the Great Lakes. We've been talking a bit about the politics here. Is the compact based on good sound science?

Mr. KLUMP: Well, I mean, in essence, the compact allows us to manage this system as a system for the first time ever, in other words it's - would look at the system as a whole system, rather than as divided up in various political boundaries. That allows us to apply science when we come to manage this system.

FLATOW: Such as?

Mr. KLUMP: Well, for example, with respect to issues on down the road, with respect to like, climate change, for example. I mean, global climate changing and warming, the two - one of the two major outputs of those models are increases in temperature, or changes in temperature, and changes in precipitation, and those are the two things, which probably impact Great Lakes and hydrologic systems worldwide more than anything else. And so there, these lakes are very susceptible to changes in climate. ..TEXT: It's supposed to get a little bit wetter, it's supposed to get warmer. Right now, it looks like warm is going to trump wet, and in the long run, we may actually see lower Great - lower levels in the Great Lakes. That's still an open question, but you know, it's - you can - it's easy to figure out what the water is worth at the other end of the pipeline, to a farmer in Kansas or wherever.

It's difficult to answer what's the value to the ecosystem on our end of the pipeline, and that's something that needs to - that science needs to be there.

FLATOW: Do the lakes all have to be treated as a unit? As one, you know, you can't look at one lake versus the other lake, and the health and the science of it.

Mr. KLUMP: Right, because they are connected hydrologically. When water flows, lake levels in Lake Superior are low, I mean, that has repercussions throughout the whole system. These are - and climatically, they're linked. They act like a big air conditioner for the East Coast. It's estimated that Philadelphia is a couple of degrees cooler in the summertime because of the Great Lakes.

FLATOW: Mike Hahn, I see you shaking your head, when I asked that question.

Mr. HAHN: No, I was shaking my head in agreement.

FLATOW: You were agreeing. Yeah, that's what I meant. Yeah.

Mr. HAHN: Yes, yes, in agreement. The lakes do function, and even to the extent that there is a situation over in Detroit with releases at that point, and a river connecting to the lakes, that has an effect farther up in the system, so it's definitely interconnected, and needs to be treated as a system.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the audience here. Question on the mike.

PAUL (Audience Member): Thank you, it's Paul from one of the straddling communities out in New Berlin. I had the fortunate - to host a comprehensive planning strategy session with hydrogeologists, policy makers in the region nine years ago, and we identified water as a bottom line for sustainable economic and environmental health.

One of the key issues with global warming and the water supply is the cost of fuel, obviously, and the water required to grow food in the region, so local production of food is very important. The next place to expand the sewer and water from Lake Michigan is a prime square mile of prime agricultural farmland.

Could you please discuss the importance of preserving prime agricultural farmland that has a sustainable supply of ground water to produce food, so we can feed the people as well as have water to drink?

FLATOW: Michael Hahn, you want to handle it?

Mr. HAHN: Sure. I'm not familiar with the specific location that you're speaking of, but certainly maintaining open lands of an agricultural nature or of a natural resources value is very important to maintaining ground water recharge. And I might also mention, under the study that we're doing right now, one of the major efforts of that study is to identify, through some very detailed modeling that's being done, along with the state geological and natural history survey and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the U.S. Geological Survey, is identifying ground water recharge areas. Those areas that should be preserved, and considered when development decisions are made, in terms of creating a sustainable ground water resource.

FLATOW: Rebecca Klaper?

Ms. KLAPER: It brings up...

FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead.

Ms. KLAPER: It brings up a couple of points, too, that, you know, we talk about the surface water of the Great Lakes being this huge water resource, but there's also a huge ground water resource that almost trumps the amount that we see on our surface water resource, that also needs to really be managed.

FLATOW: An aquifer?

Ms. KLAPER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Pretty big.

Ms. KLAPER: Yeah. So the water that's found underground, and there are many, many communities in the United States that depend on their ground water resources for their water, and that's somewhat dealt with in this compact agreement, but, you know, it needs to be dealt with along with surface water issues, because they're very connected to each other.

The ground water feeds the surface water in most cases, so both of them need to be considered. And the other point that was brought up by the gentleman about agriculture being an issue with our water resources, that's a - it's a huge consumer of water, and with - along with power as another one, generating our power can be a consumptive, and also use where we just use it for cooling water towers, let's say, and putting it back in the environment. But with the new biodiesel programs coming up, where we're depending on our agricultural land to develop our fuel, water seldom comes up in that discussion, and it's a huge water consumptive use, and needs to be considered in those discussions about how much we invest in biodiesel, let's say, as a power resource.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. 1-800-989-8255. David in Clinton Township. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, hi. I don't really have a question, but I have a comment that the Great Lakes were instrumental to the Industrial Revolution. And it was that industry that defeated the Nazi Germany's campaign of world domination. Now, it seems that we've been left behind, and we're referred to as a Rust Belt.

And I just have a proposal to industry. Hey, come on back. We have the water, we have the labor source. We're waiting for you. Thank you.

FLATOW: Are you talking about the - OK. I guess he was talking about the Great Lakes region in specifics. Do you want to - Val?

Mr. KLUMP: Well, the caller's got a good point, and the fact is our region in Wisconsin, the seven counties here in the southeastern region, have identified four or five areas of focus for economic development, because we have lost manufacturing jobs and one of those is freshwater science and technology development.

It turns out in this area there are over 120 different companies that are involved in developing water technology, water research, products that use water, and products that are used in dealing with water. So, it is an opportunity for our community, and for this region in general to use this asset. And yeah, don't move your company to Phoenix, Arizona. It may be sunny there, but you may have serious water problems on down the line. Businessmen hate uncertainty. One of the things, if you need water, it will not be uncertain here in the Great Lakes, as you will have a supply of clean, good quality water on into the indefinite future.

FLATOW: Peter Annin.

Mr. ANNIN: And that was one of the challenges in drafting the compact, is that there was a keen desire to create a sustainable water management agreement that would allow industry here to continue to thrive as much as possible, because of the bountiful water supply source and to attract industry here. So, it's a sustainable business model, as well as a sustainable ecological model. At least, that is the way the drafters have tried to put it together.

FLATOW: Let's go to the audience. This gentleman over here.

Mr. JERRY HERSCHBERGER (Audience Member): My name is Jerry Herschberger (ph). My wife and I boat on Lake Michigan and probably primarily due to my bad navigation, we have run aground a few times. However...

FLATOW: You have a too big a boat, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSCHBERGER: Very possible. But however, the lake level doesn't help. And as I'm sure the panel is well aware, Lake Michigan and Huron are really the same lake. And I think Mr. Hahn mentioned their problem in Detroit with the river. We kind of got the plug out of the bathtub there. Why, that seems like a really simple solution. Why don't we plug the bathtub there?

FLATOW: Peter, do you want to...

Mr. ANNIN: Yes, this is a - it's hard to answer this in a quick way, but so we are talking about the St. Clair River. The St. Clair River is the outlet of Lake Huron. And over the last century, the Corps of Engineers and sand mining companies dredged out the bottom of the St. Clair River, and if you think of it like the drain in the Lake Huron bathtub, it widened the bathtub and more water rushed through, lowering water levels on Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are hydrologically one lake, by 14 inches.

That is a lot. Every inch that we shave out of the water level, the ore freighters that deliver iron ore from the Lake Superior watershed down to areas in the lower Lake Michigan area, they have to shave an inch of cargo out of their holds, costing thousands of dollars per trip. So, again, it's not just an environmental issue, an economic issue.

So, as this water rushes through this widened drain in the bathtub, over time studies now suggest that it has eroded away this area even wider, possibly lowering water levels by perhaps an additional foot. So, we are talking 26 inches now over the last 100 years, between the manmade intentional and the inadvertent potential erosion.

Well, they are now studying how much of this potential water fall - water drop in levels is, because of this, how much may be due to climate changes Val was mentioning earlier. There is a lot of complexity in trying to figure out exactly what all the different water level drops are from, before they can go in with a solution.

And so they hope to release a study early next year with potential solutions to this problem. Nevertheless, when you are out there running aground, you kind of do want them to hurry up a little bit.

Mr. HERSCHBERGER: I understand that.

FLATOW: This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. Talking about the Great Lakes here. Well, talking about the health of the Great Lakes, are they pretty healthy? Someone mentioned invasive species, Val. You know, is that just one of the problems that seem to be...?

Mr. KLUMP: It is a problem. These are - the Great Lakes are not very diverse. They are very simple food webs, very simple food chains. And they are very susceptible to invasions by exotics. And there are some very notorious ones, the lamprey eel, which basically wiped out the lake trout in the '50s - '40s and '50s, the alewife, and more recently the zebra mussel and its sister, the quagga mussel, have dramatically changed this ecosystem.

So, it is a very non-steady state system. The past in not a key to the future, and it can have significant impacts on the system. We have for example, extremely good water clarity now, as a result of the zebra mussels on the site of impacts. And that is that there's vast meadows now of algae, which grow on the bottom, because light penetrates much deeper than it used to.

When algae breaks off or senesces and dies, and washes up on the beach, it stinks like a hog farm. And no one likes that, and this is a problem throughout the Great Lakes. So, it's invasive species. They are estimated, at least 200 have made it into this system. More are on their way, more coming in every day, I suspect. Some make it, some don't.

FLATOW: We've heard also about the record fall of the lake levels here. Back east we see pictures of dry areas, is this a natural occurring cycle or is it a symptom of something else?

Mr. KLUMP: It is a naturally occurring cycle in part, but it is also maybe a symptom of the future. Lake Michigan, for example, fluctuated normally about two meters, six feet. Right now, we're just a few inches above the all-time low, which was in '64, but the all-time recorded high was in '87. So it fluctuates dramatically. Lake Superior is at an 80-year low.

FLATOW: Where does the water go?

Mr. KLUMP: Well, there are two - I mean the basic control on the water level is the amount of rainfall we get, that comes in directly to the lake surface, which is about a third of the basin, the amount of runoff that goes into the lake as a result of rainfall, and the amount of evaporation. And of course, there's some outflow. And those two terms, input from precipitation and loss through evaporation, are controlled by climate. ..TEXT: So if it gets wetter, we get more water coming in. On the other hand, if it gets warmer, we get more evaporation. And right now, as I said earlier, the warmer seems to be - going to be trumping the wetter.

FLATOW: We are going to take a short break and come back, and talk lots more about the Great Lakes. If you'd like to join us, 1-800-989-8255. We'll take some more calls from you folks in the auditorium here in Milwaukee, so stay with us, we'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You are listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We are talking this hour about issues facing the Great Lakes. Coming to you from Milwaukee, Wisconsin with Peter Annin, Michael Hahn, Rebecca Klaper and Val Klump. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the audience. I think it is this side's turn, right?

BOYD (Audience Member): Good afternoon, Ira, and hello, panel. I'm Boyd from Milwaukee. We had a record-breaking snowfall this past winter, lots of snow, and I know you mentioned before, Mr. Klump, that a lot of precipitation might help with the levels even - do you think if we have more winters like this, do you think this actually might benefit the Great Lakes over the long term or won't it really make much of a difference?

Mr. KLUMP: The - you're right. We did have a good lot of snow pack this winter, and it is going to help the Great Lakes levels, but it doesn't respond very quickly. So, it's going to - may - it'll help. In the long run, predictions are that our winters will be warmer and wetter, that's good. But our summers will be warmer and drier, and that is not so good. So, the long-term prediction is for generally lower lake levels. And so - and it's because we have, you know, less precipitation balancing the amount of evaporation.

FLATOW: I see Mike Hahn wants to jump in there?

Mr. HAHN: Yes. Just another consideration related to our very severe winter and our heavy snowfalls is the fact that the distribution of that snowfall throughout the area that drains to the Great Lakes is a real factor in how much it can replenish the lakes. And even though we had all that heavy snowfall here, I mentioned before, the divide is only three to 20 miles away.

So, in terms of the overall volume on the lake, it has a benefit when that snowfall melts, but it doesn't replenish enough, and certainly it's not going to be reversing that cycle that we are seeing right now - the downward trend.

FLATOW: Peter?

Mr. ANNIN: Well, there's a couple of things just to keep in mind with snow. If it's lake effect snow, its precipitation is coming from the lake and flowing right back into the lake. So, we have to - so part of it is how much of the snowfall this last year was lake effect snow. That's just a continual issue.

And then there's research, a lot of research has been done in the climate change vein about ice cover. So, if you have - because a lot of the evaporation that occurs in the Great Lakes is actually in the winter, when there's not a lot of ice and we have dry air. And so, a lot of times water levels is not only just an issue of precipitation, but how much ice did we happen to have during the last winter. And so that's a key issue to follow in the future.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let me go to Rebecca Klaper, to talk about emerging contaminants. I started this half hour by talking about how the health - about the health of the lakes. We talked about some of these non-native species. What about the contaminants we hear about in fresh water these days?

Ms. KLAPER: Well, there are traditional contaminants, which people have heard about for a long time. PCBs and mercury being precipitated into the lake, or dumped into the lake. And now we have these classes that we've termed emerging contaminants, which can mean a couple of different things. It can mean contaminants that are truly new, that haven't been produced before, and might be released out into the environment, not only to lakes, but also to the land.

And then we also have compounds that have been around for a long time, including things like our pharmaceuticals, our drugs that we take for various diseases, that obviously we've been taking for a very long time, but we have only been able to measure these things in the environment for a much shorter period of time. We've, just in the latest decade, come up with technologies to measure the very low levels that occur in the environment.

FLATOW: Can you see that in the fish in the lakes, the evidence of the contaminants?

Ms. KLAPER: That is a good question. Not in - in Lake Michigan, for the studies that we've done, we've just started collecting tissues, and each one of these procedures, like I've said, some of the ways of measuring these things have just come along recently. All the techniques that you have to use in order to measure these things are very complicated. It's not just like what you see on CSI Miami, or whatever, where you take a little sample and shove it in the machine and...

FLATOW: You get that little blue light that diagnoses everything.

Ms. KLAPER: Yeah, in the dark. You know, you put something in the machine, it comes out with the answer. Yeah, it takes a very long time to develop these methods and so, we've measured levels of pharmaceuticals in the water in the lakes definitely, and in the sediments, and especially near of course, the sewage treatment plant effluent plumes.

And these range from pain medicines, acetaminophen which people commonly take for pain, hydrocodone which is a prescription medication, but is also one of the more commonly prescribed medications. Some of the antidepressant, anti-anxiety medications - and other people, in other freshwater bodies, have also measured hormones, which people are very concerned about.

FLATOW: Agriculture runoff stuff, things like that.

Ms. KLAPER: Yeah, from agricultural runoff and then also from sewage treatment plants, women taking birth control pill medications for various things, and those coming through a sewage treatment plant and out into waters.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Lexa (ph) in Wolcott, New York. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

LEXA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. And great show. My question is about the suburban and urban people living along tributaries that empty into the watersheds in the lake. And what impact, when it comes to the big picture, could it have if all of these people perhaps left a buffer zone, did not clearcut plant a lawn, did not dump pesticides, did not dump fertilizer onto their properties bordering the tributaries. Collectively, big picture wise, would that have a big impact?

FLATOW: Mike Hahn, any comment?

Mr. HAHN: Yeah, I think we've done some work recently that would indicate that that could have a very significant impact, and one thing that we've looked at over the past five years in doing water quality planning is the possibility of converting a lot of the more marginal agricultural land for example into riparian buffers. We're very fortunate here in much of Southeastern Wisconsin, particularly in Milwaukee County, along the river system that drains to Lake Michigan, we have a series of parkways that were developed over 80 years ago. And those themselves serve as a buffer and an environmental corridor that helps to protect that resource, as the runoff is either infiltrated or filtered as it passes through there. So yes, that could have a very significant impact if done properly and in a systematic way. And it would require some widespread installation of riparian-type buffers.

FLATOW: So, all kinds of non-point sources, aren't there, I mean, the salt off the streets...

Mr. HAHN: Yes, and this is something we've done some recent analysis of data looking for trends in terms of a number of different pollutants. But chlorides were one of them, and we did find in some of the inland lakes as well as some of the streams in the area draining to the Great Lakes here in the Milwaukee area that there is an increasing trend in chlorides and it's from those non-point sources. And there's another source that might not be as apparent and that's from water softeners that may discharge to septic systems on private lands and then that in turn drains into the ground water which forms a base flow of the streams. So that's another source.

FLATOW: What other contaminants do you have besides?

Mr. HAHN: Nutrients are one that's a source of concern. Phosphorus and nitrogen, and sediment as well, is something we've also looked at. When you're talking about urban runoff, some of the more important pollutants would be copper, heavy metals, things like that, which are more characteristic of the urban runoff.

FLATOW: And how do you get this stuff out of the lake once it's in there?

Mr. HAHN: Well, once it's in there, it's definitely a problem. I think that the main thing is to deal with it before it gets there. Get it at the source. There are a number of different ways of going about that. There are some state - there's a state program to permit storm water discharges. And this is an outgrowth of the federal permit program for point source discharges. And we talk about storm water runoff pollution as being non-point source pollution, but it's actually regulated federally as a point source under the Clean Water Act, and there are state standards calling for both existing development and new development to institute practices that would reduce those pollutants, those going to the streams and that ultimately then gets to the lake.

FLATOW: Let's go to the audience right here. Yes.

Ms. REESE HANSON (Audience Member): I'm Reese Hanson (ph), and I'm wondering how do the invasive species get into the lake, and if we can get them out?

Ms. KLAPER: That's a good question. And there are lots of scientists trying to figure out how to prevent the invasive species from entering into the lakes. And one of the ways they come in is through our shipping practices. Ships fill up or empty out their water that they've carried across the oceans that might have little critters in them from as far away as China, and come in through our Great Lake system, and exchange their water depending on the level of load that they have inside of their ship. And so, that's one of the ways that people estimate that a lot of the species get in besides, you know, swimming in from other places, but being attached to boats is a big thing.

FLATOW: Yeah, it could be on the propeller of your trailer boat.

Ms. KLAPER: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah, just even just attached to the outside of the boat. And that's one of the things we worry about in Wisconsin is, some of the diseases or organisms like the zebra mussel that has been found all over Lake Michigan being transported into some of the smaller lakes that are inland from the big lake. And as far as getting rid of them, that's the million dollar question, and probably not an easy fix. We've been really unsuccessful. People have tried getting rid of the sea lamprey and other things that have entered into the lake, and every time you try doing that, it alters the whole ecosystem, and so it hasn't really been very successful.

FLATOW: Let's go to this side of the room. Yes.

SARA (Audience Member): Hi. Sara from Pellake(ph). And Ira, I love you. Thank you for coming with your show, and thank you for coming to Milwaukee. My question is...

FLATOW: You're welcome.

SARA: When is the tipping point? We have pollution being dropped in. Indiana has, last time I heard, has a problem with that. We have all these invasive species, we have some medicines, we have people coming up and more and more coming up and taking the water out, just because where they live in Chicago and some of the urban areas, where is this tipping point for the lakes, and when is it past the point of no return?

FLATOW: Good question. Val?

Mr. KLUMP: Yes, it's a great question.

FLATOW: Threw it to you, because I knew you were itching to answer that question.

Mr. KLUMP: With respect to things like zebra mussels, we're past the tipping point. We now have to live with these organisms in the lake as Rebecca said. The good thing about the Great Lakes is they are, their volume is huge and so a lot of contamination gets quickly diluted. But that doesn't mean we haven't contaminated the system to a significant extent there. Some 43 areas around the Great Lakes were identified as being contaminated to the extent that they may impact human or wildlife health. So it is an issue. We've passed the tipping point in that respect, with respect to a lot of things.

FLATOW: Mike, did you want to say something?

Mr. HAHN: I might just be able to offer you a little bit of a ray of hope. We've been looking at, as I may have mentioned before, trends over time, and we have seen some real positive developments too, in terms of water quality. When the original, regional quality plan was done in the late 1970s, there were a lot of point sources that needed to be controlled, as well as non-point sources. And a great effort was made and many billions of dollars were spent in the interim. And so there has been a real improvement. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District deep tunnel going online made a measurable improvement in reduction of fecal coliform bacteria. So we are seeing some improvements too.

FLATOW: This is Talk of the Nation, Science Friday from NPR News, broadcasting today from Milwaukee. And, yes, did you want to jump in there, Peter?

Mr. ANNIN: Yes, I just wanted to, just to further Sara's point here. It's important that it is easy to kind of get down, because the lakes seem to be under siege from all sides at times. But turning back the clock, they do have a remarkable ability to recover and to hang in there, and sometimes thrive. Go back to the 1950s, '60s and '70s. You know, we have the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in Ohio and we have just extraordinary pollution. Lake Erie was declared biologically dead, et cetera. And the reason that we didn't have exotic species as an issue at that time is because the ballast water was dumped into harbors that were so polluted that the critters died.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANNIN: So we actually have an exotic species problem because we cleaned up our harbors. So these are the sort of unanticipated you know, non-benefits of this kind of thing. But there has been progress that has been made, and what has really changed is that people have come back to the lakes. And they are embracing the lakes like never before, and they care. And so, in many ways, it's in the hands of the people now.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in from Ed Kramer in Chicago. Hi Ed.

ED (Caller): Hi. I'm calling about Lake Michigan, right at my front door. I happen to be at Navy Pier frequently. I volunteer at Chicago Public Radio, and we have a problem here every summer with polluted water coming down from Milwaukee every time there's a rainstorm. Your sewage system dumps its water right into Lake Michigan, untreated sewage water, and it comes up on our beaches here and closes down the summer swimming.

FLATOW: You're very popular here in the audience, Ed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's a good question. Mike, did you want to answer that?

Mr. HAHN: Sure, I'd take a stab at it at least. I'd like to respectfully disagree on that point. That was the case in Chicago around the turn of the century, and the Chicago River was reversed to deal with that issue. We can talk about the wisdom of that perhaps in another forum. But, in Milwaukee, we at one time, prior to that deep tunnel that I mentioned, had maybe 50 combined sewer overflows a year. Now, this is not totally raw, untreated sewage; it's a combination of sewage and a large volume of storm water run off, which has its own pollution issues. But it's not totally sewage.

Since that deep tunnel went on line, those overflows are reduced to somewhere on the order of two to maybe three times a year, and the volume has been reduced greatly. We've even been able to show through some very sophisticated modeling that was done for the water quality plan, that the effect of the pollution plume that may enter the lake at certain times during large runoff events really doesn't even extend to our beaches, with the possible exception of a little bit to South Shore Beach. But there are many other issues that are causing the problems that I think that you're noticing, and that we're noticing here. And they're not all related to that issue at all. So the situation there has improved quite a bit.

FLATOW: Peter, we've run out of time. Last comment. How soon do you think before Ohio and Pennsylvania might ratify it?

Mr. ANNIN: I think there's a good chance.

FLATOW: Do we have to move Science Friday now to Harrisburg or going to...

Mr. ANNIN: I think you'd have a lot of popularity with that. So, the, I think that Pennsylvania is likely to adopt the Compact by the end of the year. It's touch and go, but it could happen. There's a will there. It's just a matter of whether or not they can get it through their legislative schedule. And Ohio is the big wild card. Now there's been some publicity today in some of the Ohio newspapers that there's been some movement there. But it has been laggard and it has not been in a rush. It was actually one of the first states to step forward and pass it through one chamber, but then has backed off and really taken over the last place here. So it'll be an interesting thing to watch. And then of course as you mentioned, would go on to Congress from there.

FLATOW: All right, I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us. Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, and associate director of the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources in Madison, Wisconsin. Truly a great book. I really enjoyed reading this book. Very educational.

Mr. ANNIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Michael Hahn, chief environmental engineer at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. Thank you for joining us today. Rebecca Klaper, Shaw assistant scientist at the Great Lakes Water Institute in University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. And Val Klump, director and senior scientist at the Great Lakes Water Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. I'm Ira Flatow from Milwaukee.

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