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What we're talking about with Lake Erie isn't a celebration of a natural process. If he goes faster now than it would in the absence of man it took Lake Erie at least 50 years to get to its present state. I think it will take at least 50 years if not longer for it to return to the previous state that we thought was desirable at present we don't have machinery by which we can force our. Public to accept the cost of doing a job that needs to be done. Our lakes and streams. One program in the series the circumstance of science exploring the forces of contemporary science and technology and their possible effects on society. Not long ago interior secretary you doall demanded a specific strong and coordinated action to stop the pollution of the Great Lakes. He noted that it is almost too late to save Lake Erie and said we must act quickly to save the
other lakes from an ugly useless death. In this program we will examine the deterioration of one of our most valuable resources. Water and like Gary will serve as our illustration. We asked Dr. John Buckley the director of the Interior Department's Office of ecology to describe the factors responsible for change in the great likes. I think probably the contributions that man makes to the inputs into the lake various lakes are to me the nutrient materials the nitrogen phosphorus and other micronutrients. In some cases the toxic by products of industry that occur. I'd be more concerned I think in the Great Lakes as a whole with the nutrient problem than I would with the other kinds of problems. Is this nutrient problem a natural process. Well yes. The same kind of thing would happen in the absence of man but it happens very much more rapidly here. Nitrogen is a trail
present in large quantities in the atmosphere. It's present in the absolute essential in the fertilizers that are used to say present in rainfall. It gets into the lake and it would if we if we didn't put any sewage or any waste material in it. But more of it gets in because we do it in the same thing is true with the phosphorous compounds. They're required for plant growth factor in fish time management and we deliberately add these materials as commercial fertilizer. We do this deliberately to increase the yield of fish. Just sometimes the rates get out of whack a little bit. We have more than we intend to and we change this rate. Even a lake is Biggest some of the Great Lakes. Dr. Jacobs dine a botanist at Southern Illinois University has thoroughly studied the pollution of the Great Lakes. We ask him for a description of like herring in my opinion Lake Erie is the most vulnerable of the Great Lakes because it is the most southerly which means that it
gets more warm and more light. It's also the shallowest and this combination of factors for me is that higher populations will develop in its waters than in any of the other Great Lakes and therefore in Lake Erie we have found that the filamentous algo try to offer a grows to such abundance that large masses of it appear on the beaches. And you either have to haul them away by the truckload or else you have to live with a decaying cloud after a smell which is simply nothing more so far smells go than dead fish smell. It is very interesting that Qadhafi which is not a fish at all. When indications smell of dead fish but it does and it ruins large areas of lake areas beaches because it grows so much more abundantly than it used to. Now in Lake Erie also the phytoplankton they do microscopic algae grow and about twice the abundance that they did in 1988 when I first began to work in Lake Erie. Consequently there's about
twice as much organic matter settling on the bottom of Lake Erie. And this has its most profound effect in the Central Basin in the Western basin we still have enough stirring as a result of the sloshing of water back and forth in that basin because it's a long narrow basin and the winds slosh the water back and forth. And so in the Western basin we don't have such severe oxygen depletion near the bottom as we have in the Central Basin but in the Central Basin the oxygen near the bottom is practically zero for extended periods in the summer. This did not used to be the case 20 years ago. And so many of the organisms that used to live on the bottom of Central Lake Erie are gone today. And the thing is not dead in the sense that it's a septic tank and nothing can live there. But what have taken the place of the organisms that used to be there are a different species. The sewage type organism you see animals and it will live in you know in habitats that have no oxygen. This is not
a habitat it was excludes life but it will favor the type of life that can live in a low oxygen environment. And that's the kind of life that now is found on the bottom of Lake Erie. We also talked with Dr. Al Beaton the assistant director of the University of Wisconsin Center for great like studies actually up until about 10 15 years ago. General attitude was that the rate would weeks. As a system and individually we're so large that you would not be able to detect any change in them changes such as Curry and smaller lakes. And there have been documented elsewhere in the world for small lakes but we discovered that the Great Lakes are changing and especially Lake Erie is undergoing some very rapid changes that are very alarming changes in Lake Erie and also in the other lakes
except Lake Superior all seem to be related quite closely to the degree of population buildup within their watershed. Now for instance for Lake Erie we can compile information on the population growth going back to the earliest census. And there have been a very rapid build up in the population in the Lake Erie watershed since the turn of the century and the population pressure on Lake Erie is now over 10 million. Many scientists are worried that Lake Erie has served as an indicator of danger to the other great likes Dr. Verdine. As I pointed out because it's shallow and because it's southerly. The other lakes will need to be injected with considerably larger injections of fertilizer before you get similar conditions. However we already can see conditions similar to those in Lake Erie
along the shores of Lake Michigan and along the shores of Lake Huron and Ontario wherever. A fairly shallow area retains high fertiliser for extended periods you'll find the phytoplankton growths much more abundant and they used to be you'll find the organisms on the bottom are changing just as they have done in Lake Erie. Dr. Beaton of the Center for Great Lakes studies in Lake Ontario has gone through very similar changes to Lake Erie. That is in terms of increased use of algae. Changes in the fish populations increase in chemical content. Now this is an especially surprising because most of the water that's in Lake Ontario actually is a Lake Erie water because the main tributary to Lake Ontario is the Niagara River which drains Lake Erie. So the
changes in Lake Ontario will be very closely parallel those of Lake Erie and the other lake of concern would be Lake Michigan and Lake Michigan certainly is not in the condition that Lake Erie is. But nevertheless we are seen some of the very first signs of a serious problem developing in Lake Michigan. We see a new build up beyond chlorides and soulfully similar to what we have documented for Lake Erie. There are some changes in fish populations in certain areas of the lake like in the southern Green Bay that closely parallel those in Lake Erie. But I think the main problem that we're concerned with in Lake Michigan is the pollution problem along the shoreline.
A key word to understanding the changes in the Great Lakes is you throw vocation. This is the aging process of the likes the rate at which plant nutrients enter a body of water and alter its make up. You drop a cation is a natural process and the like which is not influenced by man but in the Great Lakes man has speeded up the process by pouring millions of gallons of waste materials into the waters in Lake Erie for example. Its about five hundred and forty million gallons a day. Phosphorus is the most common cause of this increased aging of the lakes. We asked Dr. dying to describe the effects of phosphorus on large bodies of water in general phosphorus is of course a form of fertilizer and its a form of fertilizer which is. Up to recent years has been in very short supply in the lakes and rivers contained such small quantities as about 10 parts per billion of phosphorus. Well in recent years this has been increased.
Ten fold sometimes 20 fold. And the result is that plants will grow much more abundantly than they used to do. A microscopic algae will appear in higher populations and used to be true. The floating pond scum will increase in quantities. The plants that grow with their roots in the soil but still submerged in water will grow more abundantly than they used to. Now all of these plants are beneficial in proper amounts but when they're present in over abundance they cause masses of rotting material on beaches. They when they decay in the water will use up the oxygen and cause the fish to die from lack of oxygen. They cause bad odors where rotting masses of material accumulate. They rooted aquatics frequently become a severe. Hindrance
to navigation and to such sports as boating and water skiing. So it's simply the superabundance of plant growth that is the major effect that we're noticing on a large scale today as a result of the increased fertilization then. Then we have something I presume that is just undesirable but not necessarily toxic or detrimental to human health. That's exactly right. In the ordinary amounts in which they used to grow these were considered great benefits. And of course usually fertilization is considered a good benefit. However when it causes these things to grow in greater abundance than the environment can handle then they become nuisances. Now we know that fast verses are responsible to a great extent for fertilizing these plants. What is the source of the phosphorus. Well there are three easily identifiable sources.
The farmer of course puts phosphorus on his soil and rains will wash some of this phosphorus into the streams and then into the lakes. So that's one source. The city's dumps sewage into their sewage treatment plants and these sewage treatment plants digest the organic matter down to its elemental nature and one of the elements that comes out of this is phosphorus. And so that's a second source but a third an important source is the detergent industry because all of us know that 20 years ago we were washing our dishes with Ivory soap and we were washing our clothes with soap. Today we have a variety of Heike powered detergents and practically all of these contain phosphorus in large amounts to more than half of the bulk in the package maybe phosphates. And this is one of the most important sources of the present
level of phosphorous fertilizer or household detergents that are a common source of phosphorus. And they affect our likes and strains. In 1985 the soap and detergent industry in the United States accomplished an extremely costly changeover from what the industry calls hard detergent to soft or biodegradable detergent. We talked with Dr. Beaton of the Center for Great Lakes studies Mr. Charles built been a technical director of the Soap and Detergent Association and octave or die of Southern Illinois University about the detergent change over first doc to be one of the main reasons for doing this is that the heart detergents so-called hard detergent would not break down readily. You see in our sewage treatment plants these are actually biological systems and we rely upon bacteria and other organisms to break waste down of these hard detergent were such a chemical structure that
the organisms could not break them down rapidly. So they sold detergent industry spent considerable funds in developing a so-called saw detergent that had a chemical structure so that organisms can break the material down. And this reduces some of the homing problem and so on. And supposedly these soft detergents are not as toxic to biological systems as the Charles built man technical director of the Soap and Detergent Association the detergent industry change the molecular structure of its material to make it possible for bacteria or biological life to metabolize and or break down the material. The does take biological activity to break it down.
Thus it is necessary for this material to pass through a sewage treatment plant where the bacteria can work on the material and break it down. Thus you might have incidences of foaming today. These incidences of foaming can be either due to natural constituents the organic decay of our in the fall if leaves fall from the trees and decay and the surface runoff carry these into the waters and are natural forming agents. The other and more significant item might be the lack of adequate sewage treatment thus biodegradable surfactants as we now have them today. Do act in the technical sense as a tracer. They can be an indicator of the lack of proper sewage treatment. The detergent materials are a part of municipal sewage and therefore
one of the reasons for referring to this material to date as a tracer is that it does accompany other household wastes. Normally called sewage constituents. And after passing through a treatment plant. If foaming persists it is an indication or a indicator that the sewage treatment plant is not operating properly for all practical purposes we have now eliminated the sods from the household detergents because of the detergent industry's multi million dollar voluntary conversion. Now that the obnoxious sods are gone does this mean that our problems with detergents are also eliminated. Doctors are dying. Not at all. In fact the suds were primarily an aesthetic consideration. People were disturbed by the fact that their water foam and they don't mind if there if there's foam on their beer
glass but they don't like it on their water glass. Actually the foam in the water glass is as harmless as the foam on the beer. And so the only thing we accomplished in my opinion by going to the type of detergent that no longer foams on your water glass is that people now don't see that the detergent is there. They used to see it was there. This was what the soap industry calls their conversion from hard to soft detergents because of this conversion though is that has there been a decrease in the amount of phosphorus contained in detergent. No not at all. The phosphorus content as a roommate remains unchanged. The conversion from hard to soft didn't touch the phosphorus concentration. It simply changed the organic molecule so that now the bacteria in the sewage treatment plants will break it down so it is no longer and it doesn't longer have its high foaming action. But the phosphorus is still there as same as it was before. There are of course other contributing factors to our pollution problems spilled
oil from shipping poorly treated sewage from municipalities heat or thermal pollution from power plants and even dangers from runoff waters containing pesticides. There is little doubt all of these factors have contributed to the present state of the great likes. How much would it cost and how long would it take to get Lake Erie back to a natural state. Dr. John Buckley of the Interior Department's Office of ecology. The word natural law even though we put it in quotes. He implies that Lake Erie is not a natural state now and at least as far as nutrients are concerned in this process that we recently have come to call you trough a kitchen the very word has changed its meaning recently because you drove a cation was formally used as a description of a process of aging in the natural waters. And really what we're talking about with Lake Erie is an acceleration of a natural process. If it goes faster now than it would in the absence of man.
But it's quite clear that in a geological time scale at any rate the same directions the same final result would occur unlike your he would ultimately become a Martian perhaps dry land so that. If you mean can we delay this and return the rate to the same as as might have occurred in the absence of man. I think the answer is he's partly we can slow it down but I doubt that we could return it to the same rate. It would take place in the absence of man. We asked Dr Beaton of the Center for Great Lakes studies if it is possible to estimate how long it would take to clean up like Kerry when major changes in Lake Erie have occurred over a period of about 50 years. Therefore it would be unrealistic to think that because we spent say three billion dollars and had the most advanced sewage treatment and so on that we would expect to see profound improvement
in Lake Erie in just a few years. It took Lake Erie at least 50 years to get to its present state. I think it will take at least 50 years if not longer for it to return to the previous state that we thought was desirable. Most of the pollution experts place high priority on the necessity for more effective sewage treatment plants to help reduce the problems. Botanist take a very dine at Southern Illinois University has reported that the phosphorus from household detergents represents about three quarters of the phosphorus delivered in sewage from cities and suburbs. We asked Dr. Don how successful all the sewage plants in removing the phosphorus from the present sewage plants are not successful at all. They aren't designed to do so. They were originally designed to digest organic matter and this is what they do. They don't do that very well in many cases I know cities especially those that are near large rivers that are perfectly satisfied with 50 percent
digestion. They just sort of cut down about half of the organic matter in the dumps the rest in the river. This is true of cities that live near rivers like the Missouri River of the Mississippi River. Large volumes of water can handle these poorly digested sewage effluence without becoming so severe in those scenes that the public will rise up and shout about it. But the sewage treatment plants in existence today except for a one or two examples of a of a model type of attack on the problem most sewage treatment plants today don't take any of the nutrients out. Instead they simply digest the organic material down to the elemental nutrient level and then dump it into the river. Dr. Beaton of the Center for Great Lakes studies if you're trying to remove such things for last person I think you can. Plants can vary considerably and there are very few plants that are really removing 80 or 90 percent
of the phosphorus and nitrogen. In fact if we had some plants that were functioning in this well. And this would be wonderful. But most of the plants are not this efficient in removing some of these compounds and actually what many of these plants do would be to remove a lot of the solids some amount of the phosphorus and then we along with the chlorination to kill off any of the pathogenic bacteria. This is what we were dealing with in the usual treatment system we have today. And what we're aiming for is trying to upgrade the sewage treatment plants that we have developed new approaches to treating sewage so we can remove many of these other compounds that we're concerned about that are causing changes in the waters. And your estimation of what would be the major steps necessary for industry and government
to ensure clean water in our rivers and lakes. Well. Let me take two approaches. I would say that we should elucidate one principle and that is that anybody who used water should return that water to the environment as good as it was when he got it. Preferably a little better but definitely not deteriorated. This is a principle we ought to state now how you're going to enforce that principle is the next question and that's where I want to take two approaches. I think we could do it by passing laws and policing the situation and enforcing those laws. That's one approach. On the other hand we do a lot of things in our society without that approach. We build highways we build cars we build TV sets we build all kinds of miracles that have been invented in recent years. And the problem of cleaning up our water is no bigger than the problem of
designing inventing building and marketing a TV set or a Cadillac or building a highway. There's no reason why our private enterprise system can't do that job just as well as it's done the other jobs it's doing. If we just recognize the problem and and attack it in the way we've attacked the other problems that exist in our society. What are some of the preventive and corrective measures that have been suggested for solving the problems of the Great Lakes. Well off there been quite a number of the. First of all I think most of us feel that we need to try to have the very best possible treatment of sewage that is available at the present time even knowing that we feel that some of these methods may be inadequate. Nevertheless they have that's what we have to deal with now until something better comes along to use the best
possible treatment available of course and to eliminate the problem of siller a huge group of cation the very best approach would be to eliminate any sewage going into the lakes you know. This would be possible in some situations I have advocated the construction of a large interceptor sewer system extending all the way from Milwaukee down to Michigan City which could collect sewage from all the metropolitan areas and diverted away from the lake possibly down the Mississippi River system. Of course this can cause some additional problems in the watershed away from the lakes but we do know all the river systems are much better in handling a sewage load than the lake is.
So it depends upon making a very careful study of various all alternative methods of handling the sewage and so on and what the implications of such a large interceptor sewer would be. But this would be one approach to help the situation suddenly. Are there any legal or technical things that you would suggested would be needed to operate effectively by the federal government the state agency. Well if we're going to take the governmental approach Yes we need we need laws with more teeth in than we have today and we need some device for policing the situation after you've got the laws with the teeth in for example today if we have a small town that's dumping all our sewage into a creek the public health department can receive complaints or can make complaints. And the state public health department can't state that this city has to build a sewage treatment plant.
So the city fathers will put a. It will put something to the people the voters in the form of a referendum to find out whether they were willing to accept the cost of building a sewage treatment plant so when they vote no. So where do you go from there. You see at present we don't have machinery by which we can force our public to accept the cost of doing a job that needs to be done of this nature. You've been listening to the ninth programme in the series the circumstance of science exploring the forces of contemporary science and technology and their possible effects on society. You're invited to be with us for our next discussion on power grids and nuclear power production. The chairman of the Federal Power Commission comments on the implications and advantages of huge power interconnections and a scientist manufacturer and Congressman describe the prospects for nuclear energy. A transcript of this program is available without
The circumstance of science
Episode Number
Episode 9 of 13
Producing Organization
Michigan State University
WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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The Circumstance of Science. Documentary series. No information available.
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Producing Organization: Michigan State University
Producing Organization: WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 68-23-9 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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Duration: 00:29:43
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Chicago: “The circumstance of science; Episode 9 of 13,” 1968-07-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 12, 2022,
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APA: The circumstance of science; Episode 9 of 13. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from