Thursday, April 30, 2009

Water Pollution Case Study: Lake Erie

I grew up in Buffalo, New York in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when pollution was reaching its peak in the rust belt and the environmental movement was beginning. One of the watershed moments in the environmental movement was the discovery in 1978 of toxic waste underneath a school in Love Canal, near Niagara Falls and very close to Buffalo. Until I was six we lived down the street from Lake Erie, and I still recall walking along the shoreline with a clean-up crew. The Lake was very polluted at that time; signs posted near fishing areas stated severe limits on consumption of caught fish due to the threat of mercury poisoning. Not that there were many fish to catch; the only type of fish anyone caught was catfish. Why only catfish? Because catfish don’t need oxygen in the water to breathe; unlike other fish who use gills to extract dissolved oxygen from water, catfish obtain their oxygen by gulping air when they come to the surface. The problem in Lake Erie and many other bodies of water at that time was that it was eutrophic, i.e., oxygen-depleted. In the process of eutrophication, limiting nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen added to the water cause algae blooms. When the algae die, they decompose:

C6H12O6 + 6O2 = 6 CO2 + 6H2O

This consumes the oxygen dissolved in the lake water. In temperate regions such as upstate New York, lakes have two layers: a shallow, warm, buoyant layer and a deep, cold, dense layer. In a eutrophic lake, the shallow layer in contact with the atmosphere is oxygen-rich, but the deep layer becomes oxygen depleted because the dead algae sink to the bottom of the lake and decompose. In the fall and spring the density difference between the two layers disappears and they mix together. The problem is that, especially in the fall, the deep water has no oxygen, so when it mixes with the shallow water the resulting mixture does not have enough oxygen for fish to breathe, and they die in large numbers. This is still a widespread problem in many areas of the U.S.. In fact, there is now a huge “dead zone” near the Mississippi delta in the Gulf of Mexico that formed because fertilizer-derived nutrients caused algae blooms and eutrophication. The good news is that there is a solution. Simply removing phosphorous from detergents in areas surrounding Lake Erie led to a decline in algae blooms, and now the lake has mostly recovered. No one is worse off for using phosphate-free detergents, but for some reason in areas where regulations allow it (including my current home state of Tennessee) most detergents still contain phosphates, and eutrophication is still a problem.

Lake Erie is still not without problems. In summers, beaches are often temporarily closed after rainfall events. Why? Because wastewater disposal systems have limited capacity, and during heavy rains they fill up and then overflow into local streams, which flow to the lake. You may have noticed that water treatment plants and pumping stations usually have overflow ponds with pipes near the top that drain into a stream. When it rains, you can observe the overflow ponds fill up. Once they are full, any additional wastewater flows out through the pipe and dumps into the stream. Ironically, water in streams is usually dirtiest after rainfall events. Currently many cities are in the process of upgrading their wastewater systems under federal mandate. The problem is the same problem we face with highways; you can add more lanes, but traffic will build until a few years later it as just as congested as it was before you added the lanes. Population growth means that the ideal size of a service system is a moving target, and these systems frequently require expensive expansion projects. The city of Nashville had to increase its water bill in 2009 in order to pay for the expansion of its wastewater system, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.


  1. You may have noticed that water treatment plants and pumping stations usually have overflow ponds with pipes near the top that drain into a stream.

  2. Not that there were many fish to catch; the only type of fish anyone caught was catfish.

  3. During last couple of days I've been visiting different blogs, and there is something that I'm really worried. it's about the excessive pollution around the world, that is increasing day by day.this article you're share with us is an exact example.

  4. Very sadly polluted water affects the food chain and also the underwater life.They should be preserved...they look after the balance of the nature.

  5. We must start sustainable water practices at the individual level! Also eutrophication occurs because people use too many fertilizers!

    I run a small landscaping company in Birmingham AL. Most people think of the SE as a rain belt, but over the past 6 years we have experienced several years of rather severe drought which has gotten people to think about conservation. Much of the water use in the SE is to water lawns and gardens. It does not make sense to use chlorinated water for this use!

    I start with plenty of top soil, thus limiting the need for fertilizers. I have started to install rain barrels (underground and in crawl spaces under porches etc), low water irrigation systems, and of course the biggest is to use local plants that are drought tolerant in many of my designs.

    Water conservation is not a fad. It is a must even in the SE where we “thought” we were immune!

  6. What I'm reading between the lines of your sad story is how little people are willing to change in order to save the environment. This, along with the excess consumption of animal products pollutes our water and land and destroy the earth.

  7. great post you helped me on my geog work!!!!!!!!:) thanks much. yay.

  8. Water pollution is not only happening in isolated places but a global concern. This is a nice post as an eye-opener of what’s happening in our surroundings. The underwater life is affected and the contamination enters our food chain. There should be proper disposal of wastes. There are so many pollute beaches now and what we can do is to preserve them.

    Please check out my blog if you can: