Alex: Hello, and welcome to Reporter Podcast. I’m your host, Alex Meddin, and today we’re discussing “The Great Lakes: A Fragile Resource.” I’m joined today by the article’s author, Dan Grinthal.
Dan: Thank you Alex, pleasure to be here.
Alex: Great to have you. And if you could, could you briefly describe for our audience what the article talks about?
Dan: So this article takes a look at the Great Lakes as a natural resource for us and some of the challenges that are facing us that we have to address in the coming years to be able to keep using the Great Lakes as the resource that they are.
Alex: Okay, so, like, how are they? How are our Great Lakes doing?
Dan: So, they’re doing good and not so good in some ways. We use them for a whole lot of things, we get a lot of our fresh water from around here from the lakes, but we’re not getting that in its untreated state. The water is pretty polluted in some places, there’s a lot of invasive species contamination, there’s eutrophication from agricultural runoff, but many parts of the lake are still beautiful and are kept in a fairly close to pristine condition. So it depends where you go and how you’re looking at it.
Alex: Okay, I like that you’re semi-optimistic. But you used a word there that I don’t know. Eutrophication?
Dan: Eutrophication, yes. That refers to a process that happens when there’s too many nutrients in the water. It often happens with industrial runoff, with petro-chemical fertilizers. That’s not the only way that it happens but basically algae bloom forms because there’s too many nutrients on the surface of the water and then that algae starts to choke out the other life forms in the lake and it leads to a lot of problems in the wildlife there and the oxygen content in the water.
Alex: Wow, okay, so what are some of the other challenges that the lakes are facing right now?
Dan: One of the big ones is the invasion of plastic, if you wanna look at it that way. There’s a lot of plastic micro-trash and larger plastic trash in the lakes that are entering from both Canada and the U.S. that’s causing problems with wildlife. It’s an eyesore for sure and it’s even entering the food chain of fish that we harvest from the lake.
Alex: So how does that plastic get there? Is it industrial waste? Are people just chucking things off of boats? Where is it coming from?
Dan: Well I imagine it’s both. I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure about all of the waste streams that get into the lake. I do know that some of it enters from municipal sewage systems, so for example in the article we use the fairly recent example of plastic microbeads that were in a lot of cosmetic products which mostly have been banned now because we realize that they’re harmful. But those were plastic particles that got washed down the drain in showers or the sink and they wound up in the mouths of fish and then our mouths.
Alex: You also wrote in the article that there’s a lot of invasive species. How do these invasive species interact with the existing species in the lakes.
Dan: There’s a number of different species and they all have different effects. So one of the … sort of the poster child right now is zebra mussels. So these are an invasive filter feeder … shellfish, and what they do is they suck a lot of nutrients out of the water that native shellfish need, and which native fish also feed on. And then they die and their shells clog up coolant pipes and whatnot and wash up on beaches and it’s just an additional competition that native species don’t need and we don’t want it to get to the point where it chokes out those native species and starts changing the ecosystem.
Alex: So it’s pretty clear that the lakes, from an environmental perspective, are facing a lot of challenges. What about communities around the lakes that use them for their resources?
Dan: We can look a little bit back into the history of the Great Lakes region. This area is referred to as the Rust Belt now, which is in reference to, in past years, the booming industrial cities that were round this area. Rochester is one of them. Cleveland, Ohio is another. There’s a number of them around the area. And it’s called the Rust Belt now because it’s kind of declined in this area, that industry, and a lot of that industry went out to the Midwest, to the Sun Belt, so there are still thriving communities here but they’re still changing the way that we interact with the Great Lakes and the surrounding ecology is definitely changing. Industry has declined quite a bit in the area.
Alex: I read in the article that communities that use water from the Great Lakes, when they start to find that their water is too polluted they just push their pipes out further.
Dan: That is, apparently a very common solution to the problem of pollution but it’s not sustainable. Eventually you just keep pushing the pipes out too far but you don’t do anything about the pollution, you will reach a point where you can no longer push those pipes out and find clean water.
Alex: So are there any people trying to solve the pollution?
Dan: Yes, absolutely, lots of people at a grassroots level, individual people are the ones who are eventually going to change things on a large scale. Many people are very conscious of conservation, what they do with their trash, how that affects where they live. There’s also official policy in the works and there’s always people fighting in government over these sorts of things. There is a commission — the Great Lakes commission that was mentioned in the article — that looks at the Great Lakes as not only conservation, also business-minded and how to manage the Great Lakes as a resource but that also involves trying to keep this clean as a resource for people to continue using and making economic profit on.
Alex: So do you find that government intervention and regulation is being successful at all or is it kind of getting stuck in the swamp of big government?
Dan: That’s something I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk too much about. I’m sure there’s been some success — it depends on your metrics of success. Some people would say, no, big government is failing utterly. Other people would say, no, well we could still drink the water at all, if industrial corporations had been totally free reign, that wouldn’t be the case. In my opinion, I suppose it depends on your metric of success there.
Alex: Okay that’s fair. So let’s say we do get together all the resources needed to clean the lakes. How do we go about that?
Dan: I imagine it would be an enormous effort. These are … it’s the largest freshwater system in the world and it comprises 90 percent of the United States fresh surface water. I believe it’s about six quadrillion gallons of water, which is … cleaning up something that big is not a small project. It’s going to require buy-in from the powers that be — from government, from corporations, but also buy-in from people like you and me. Everyday people who have to be aware of the problems facing their environment and why they should care. Because we all should. Not having water is a very bad thing. And those people who are willing to feed that up to the people in power.
Alex: Okay, um, I actually don’t have a question about this. I just wanted to share how shocked I was when reading your article that we put water from the Great Lakes into giant tankers and ship them to the Middle East.
Dan: Well, to my knowledge, it hasn’t actually occurred yet.
Alex: Okay, so that was just a plan.
Dan: Well, it was just a plan, apparently, which has been defeated to this point but the idea was that we’ve got this huge, natural resource of water and we sell things like coal and oil and lumber and make billions, trillions of dollars on this stuff. Why not do it with water? We’re not using it all. But that notion was defeated the last time it was brought up. They’re gonna sell the water to wealthy Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia, arid places that don’t have that kind of resource but do have the money to buy it. One of the sources in the article was concerned that with the decline of the industry in the area, of the Rust Belt here, and declining tax base since the wealth of this area is no longer what it used to be from other industries, that the danger of the attractiveness of selling out water overseas and removing that from the ecosystem might be increased.
Alex: Okay, so, you’re talking about how people say we have this huge resource and we ought to use it but do you think that there’s a split between the people who want to use the resource for economic purposes and people who want to see it preserved or are they kind of on the same team?
Dan: I think there’s absolutely a split. I don’t think that there necessarily needs to be, but there is. So there’s a classic conservationist attitude where we would sell the water or we would use it in industrial processing plants. We would build dams to generate electricity because that improves the resource, the reasoning goes. You shouldn’t just leave it there for enjoyment, you shouldn’t just leave it there for the continuation of the ecosystem, because it has the potential to help a whole lot of people by generating other resources. And then there’s the conservationist approach that says we’ve already developed too much, if we continue, it would totally destroy this resource and we won’t be able to use it at all. So let’s just leave it here and let it look pretty and enjoy it and let the species that were here before us, quote unquote, live and let die. And I think there’s a balance somewhere in there, that resources need to be managed if we are to stay here as human beings but we can’t destroy them if we use them or they will no longer be there for us to use.
Alex: Okay so, while we still have this resource available, how can we use it? What can we do with the Great Lakes?
Dan: The Rust Belt, the industrial centers around the Great Lakes were huge manufacturing centers. They used the water in all sorts of industrial processes. Which is something that a lot of people don’t realize. Nearly everything that we own or wear needs … consumes water, sometimes massive quantities of water especially plastic manufacturing and recycling, in order to produce. So water was drawn from the lakes for manufacturing, we use it in agriculture, it’s used in irrigation, and it’s also a recreational resource. We … there’s water sports, there’s boating, tons of fishing on the lake. Commercial fishing is a big resource that the lake is famous for. And not to downplay how enormous these … this natural feature is. It’s a shipping lane between us and Canada and between all the regions of the lakes connect, so it’s a transportation route. And the natural areas around the Great Lakes. The watershed are a beautiful recreational opportunity for all of us as well and add to the quality of life I think, to the people that are able to live within them.
Alex: So we need to wrap up in a second, but I actually want to end on that note. For our listeners who haven’t really had a chance to go see the Great Lakes, what would you recommend doing? Where would you recommend going?
Dan: Oh, absolutely. Well, I would recommend that you get out on the water if you can. Participate in water sports. One of our sources in this article brought up a really good point. If you get out there into the water, you can’t help but notice the quality of the water when it’s beautiful and when it’s not. And it develops a much better sense of connection to the resource that you’re dependent on for life. But aside from that, check out the beaches. Hamlin beach is a good one. If you hop on the St Lawrence Seaway, that’s another wonderful way to see Lake Ontario. The beach is close to here. That’s about 20 minutes north or so from RIT. You can get on that. And there’s lots of hiking. Chimney Bluffs state park, I believe, is close to here. So yeah, just get out there and enjoy all the natural recreation opportunities that are around.
Alex: If spring ever comes, I’ll make sure to bring my dog out. So thanks for joining us, Dan, that’s all our time. For our listeners out there in podcast land, please read the article online at reporter.rit.edu, it’s out now, and don’t forget to follow us on social media @reportermag on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, and as usual I ask you to call or text RINGS. The number’s 585-672-4840. You can just share whatever incredible thoughts your little beautiful minds can come up with. Number’s 585-672-4840. And before I sign off, a special thanks to our guest producers Maggie and Kimmie. Thanks guys.