NRDC: Saving a Great Lake
Q&A with NRDC attorney Thom Cmar.
Why does Lake Erie hold such importance to environmentalists?
One of the seminal moments in the history of environmental law was when the Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, caught fire in the late 1960s. That event, as much as any other, created the awareness that we needed a more stringent, science-based framework to address water and air pollution. At the time, Lake Erie was widely declared to be dead, because it had massive inputs of pollution from factories and wastewater treatment plants. (See "Lake Erie Death Watch.") The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 in part to address that problem, and it worked, but it wasn’t a perfect success. In the law, Congress set a goal that we would stop discharging pollution into U.S. waterways by 1985. That obviously didn’t happen. A lot of what I do today, what NRDC does today, is try to get closer and closer to that perpetually receding horizon. We’ve made huge progress in dealing with these major dischargers.
Then why have the problems returned?
You’ve got urban runoff from a whole series of cities around Lake Erie’s western basin, from Detroit to Toledo. Plus, while their wastewater treatment plants are discharging less phosphorus than they used to, they’re still discharging significant amounts. And, in that area, we’ve got a huge concentration of agriculture, which is much more difficult to regulate.
Why is that?
The Clean Water Act, as a political compromise, does not apply to agricultural runoff. That means, in order to reduce agricultural pollution, the government has to resort to things like providing money to farmers to engage in better practices. But the programs are voluntary, and the bad actors are unlikely to enroll unless the incentives are so high that they become cost-prohibitive. You can’t solve this problem simply by throwing money at it -- ultimately, farmers need to decide on their own that better practices make sense.
What are the most critical steps that need to be taken to ensure Lake Erie survives?
Federal and state agencies, working together, need to determine the baseline amount of phosphorus that can be safely discharged into Lake Erie, then work backwards from there to identify how to reduce pollution to that amount. The Clean Water Act provides authority to do this, and it’s starting to happen in other places like the Chesapeake Bay after years of effort (and lawsuits). Once you have a baseline, creative approaches to get below that safe level could include programs where some farmers would pay for the right to continue their operations as is, while others would reduce their nutrient pollution (and might be able to get money for doing so). It can also set the basis for progressively more stringent limits on phosphorus when major dischargers are issued permits. And it creates a sense of metrics—here is where we need to go.
What are the chances of that happening in a political climate adverse to regulation?
Look, you can see these algae blooms from space. There’s no hiding from the problem and people throughout the region are starting to get concerned, no matter what their politics are. It’s true that there are active efforts in Congress to repeal even the basic protections we have had for decades, which have led to progress that many people now take for granted. If we’re going to succeed in our goal of fully restoring and revitalizing our natural resources, we have to be able to save places like Lake Erie. We have to be able to strengthen environmental and public health protections and not roll them back to the bad old days when the Cuyahoga River burned on the edge of the Great Lakes. And make no mistake: that’s what many in Congress are talking about doing right now, and Lake Erie will suffer for it.