This week, host Daniel Raimi talks with Catherine Kling, who, among her many titles, is a Tisch University professor at Cornell University and a member of RFF's Board of Directors. They talk about a recent op-ed that Kling published in the New York Times, called “Polluting Farmers Should Pay,” which focuses on nutrient runoff from agricultural land and how the runoff contributes to harmful algae blooms across the United States. They also talk about potential options for federal and state policies to address this problem, as well as Kling's early work on developing a social cost of water pollution.
Listen to the Podcast
Top of the Stack
- "Polluting Farmers Should Pay" by Catherine Kling, New York Times
- "Lake Michigan has become much clearer in 20 years, but at great cost," Chicago Tribune
- "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver
- Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi.
This week, we talk with Dr. Catherine Kling, who, among her many titles, is a Tisch University professor at Cornell University, and a member of our board of directors here at RFF. I’ll talk with Cathy about a recent op-ed she published in the New York Times called “Polluting Farmers Should Pay,” which focuses on nutrient runoff from agricultural land and how it contributes to harmful algae blooms across the United States. We’ll talk about the potential options for federal and state policies to address this problem, as well as Cathy’s early work on developing the social cost of water pollution. Stay with us.
Okay. Cathy Kling from Cornell University. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Cathy Kling: I'm so delighted to be here. Thanks for having me.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, so we're really happy to have you, and we are going to talk today about water pollution and some policies around water pollution here in the United States. But before we get into the details, can you tell us first how you became interested in environmental issues and water in particular? Kind of what got you into this work.
Cathy Kling: Yeah. I was born in Michigan in a suburb and my parents were very avid outdoors people, particularly my father. Mom and dad went fly fishing together before us kids were born, and stories are that my mother was a better fisherman than my father. We have no actual videos to prove that, but she was quite proud of that fact. Anyway, when I was a kid, we spent a lot of time on Saturdays, weekends, summer vacations, camping. Get the old Coleman tent in the big station wagon and drive north. And as part of that experience, there was always water. It was always about going to water. Often a pond just to dip a bamboo fishing pole in. Sometimes the Great Lakes, where we would camp around Lake Superior or Michigan. And so it was just a very active part of my life.
One particular story, and the thing I really remember about being a kid is, my brothers and I would go fishing, as I said, with these old simple bamboo fishing poles, and my grandmother would make something for us called dough bait. Now many people have not heard of dough bait.
Daniel Raimi: I have not heard of dough bait.
Cathy Kling: Okay, so let me tell you what it is. My grandmother had the best recipe for dough bait, I'm sure. I am not exactly sure what the magic ingredients were, but basically it was cornmeal and sugar, with some water mixed in, and then boiled just long enough to keep it all together. She would give you a hunk of that stuff, and you'd put it in your pocket, and you'd go out to the pond or to the lake, and you'd use it as bait. You put it on your hook and you'd catch fish with it. And it actually sometimes worked. But the best part was, if you got hungry, you could just reach in your pocket and start chewing on that dough bait to get you through til you went home for lunch. It really was a dual purpose. Keep the fisher-people full of energy, and hopefully catch some fish.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's so great. And it's nice to know the fish like carbs as much as we do.
Cathy Kling: Yes, there you go. Sugar at least.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Yeah, for sure. Okay, so next time I go fishing in Michigan, I need to get the recipe from you.
Cathy Kling: Absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: Let's talk about the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed that you wrote, which was about algae blooms, or algal blooms. First, can you correct me on my terminology? Should I be saying algae blooms or algal blooms? I haven't figured this out yet.
Cathy Kling: I have heard both.
Daniel Raimi: Okay.
Cathy Kling: I'm no help.
Daniel Raimi: All right. I'll probably go with algae blooms then, that seems a little easier to say. Can you tell us what are algae blooms? And why are they harmful?
Cathy Kling: You bet. I have, of course, a very basic science understanding. I'm not a biologist or limnologist. But the basic idea is that there are of course lots of bacteria and various plants that live in our environment. And one of them is a cyanobacteria, which as I said, is naturally occurring in small amounts. When it gets very large, it creates, sometimes under the right conditions, toxins. And those toxins are very dangerous if they are eaten by pets or people, they can kill people, and they haven't to my knowledge, but they certainly have killed pets, livestock, waterfowl, and others. Those cyanotoxins become full blown harmful algal blooms on a large scale, as I said, in the right conditions. And those conditions are when they are fed with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that can come from a variety of sources, and when they sit still in warm water.
The basic recipe for a cyanobacteria bloom that becomes a full harmful algal bloom is, add what is basically fertilizer to the cyanobacteria. Whether it's natural or whether it comes from manmade fertilizer, whether it comes from manure, you add that fertilizer, you put it in a nice warm, not moving lake, stream, whatever, and that will create harmful algal blooms. And they can be very large, they can be small. They have been growing in magnitude and prevalence, not only in the United States, but across the world for the last 40 or 50 years. And that's because of human activities. And there's a variety of human activities which contribute to those harmful algal blooms. The op-ed piece I wrote focused on the agricultural sources, which are significant and large in many locations. But by no means are they the only sources of those nutrients.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Well, can you break that down for us in a little bit more detail and tell us about, kind of what the key ingredients are. You mentioned agricultural nutrients. Can you tell us a little bit more about sort of the relative contribution of those nutrients relative to contributions from other sources, be they human-made or natural in the environment?
Cathy Kling: Yeah. The problems that we're having now are approximately all human-made. The cyanobacteria is out there, but it doesn't create these huge problems naturally. It's when there are these, the right anthropogenic conditions contribute to them. But it is important to recognize that there are multiple sources of where those nutrients come from. And I'll use the term nutrients generally to mean nitrogen and phosphorus. And so nutrient is just a nice catchall to talk about both.
Those nutrients that are now much more prevalent in our environment come from municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants. They come from concentrated animal feeding operations; those are big livestock operations, poultry, hogs, and so on. And they've come from, what we call non-point sources or diffuse sources. And those are just terms that mean they come from runoff from agricultural fields. They're kind of spread all over. There's isn't a real simple, easy point of where they're being dumped into the environment. They also come from roads, stormwater, they can be overflows from sewage when our sewage plants and sewage treatment facilities get overloaded by a large rainstorm. There's a whole large variety of anthropogenic sources of these nutrients that are now impacting our waterways very much in this country, but also around the world.
Daniel Raimi: Okay. Yeah. That makes sense. That helps give us a basic idea of kind of what the problem is, what some of the main causes are. When we think about addressing this issue, one of the thoughts that came to my mind and one of the points that you make in your op-ed is that, this is a problem that affects many states in the US and as you mentioned, countries around the world. It also crosses state boundaries and the sort of worst impacts often occur hundreds of miles downstream from where the pollution may actually enter the system in the first place. When you have that kind of problem that crosses state lines in the US context, I often think about, well, maybe there's a role for the federal government here to deal with this issue. But that's not, it's not quite so easy to do that. Can you talk about what factors might stand in the way of potential federal action?
Cathy Kling: Yes, you bet. You are absolutely correct that this is a problem that impacts all states. In fact, EPA reports that all 50 of our states do experience harmful algal blooms. Something like 15,000 water bodies in the United States are out of sync with the amount of nutrients that they have. They have nutrient related problems. 40% of our lakes that are not swimmable and fishable are because of nutrient problems. It's widespread and it's everywhere. Furthermore, exactly as you note, this is a type of pollutant that can enter into our waterways and streams and often end up far away before it begins the process of creating harmful algal blooms or its sister problem, which is a eutrophication and the creation of dead zones.
Daniel Raimi: Right, and that's oxygen deprived environments, right?
Cathy Kling: Yeah. Let's turn to the specific example of a very large problem, which is the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone. In this case, there are about two thirds of the states in the continental US flow into the Gulf of Mexico. That is, there's a huge watershed in the center of the country. What that means is all the excess nutrients that come off farms, that come off any source, farming is the main source of the problem there, but it's, there's some urban, there are some municipal plants as well. All of those nutrients eventually make their way down to the Gulf. It seems very sensible as you just suggested that because of that, a federal or at least a large regional agency or plan should be in place to address this.
Now we turn to the Clean Water Act, which is the dominant source of regulation and or policy regarding water quality in this country. In the Clean Water Act, they specifically identify a distinction between point sources, which can and are regulated under the Clean Water Act, and non-point sources which are not regulated. For the point sources, in fact, we have a permit system. It's called the NPDES permit system, which has been in place for, since the Clean Water Act. And it clearly has made huge improvements, in the amount of pollution, of pollutants coming from industrial and municipal sources that are point in nature; where there's a plant or a factory or something clear that you know the pollution is coming from. They are permitted, they are required to clean up and to not be putting a lot of effluent back into the rivers and streams.
However, as I said, the agricultural sector, the diffuse non-point source was explicitly not incorporated into that decision. We have a large part of the remaining nutrients that are entering, for example, the Gulf of Mexico, that are not under any regulation. In the Gulf of Mexico, again continuing that case, both nitrogen and phosphorus are contributing to the problem and about 80 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous that are making its way down to the Gulf are from agricultural sources, and they're from these diffuse non-point sources.
It really is the thing we have to be talking about, that agriculture is really going to have to be part of the conversation. I do think it's important to note that there are large animal feeding operations which are actually required to have permits. Despite the view that a lot of people tend to think, oh big industry, big factories, the factory farms are the problem. Actually, they're regulated and probably do a fairly good job. It is the large areas of cropland and of unregulated that much of this nutrient is still coming from.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And so you mentioned some of the political factors that people might imagine are at play. When you think about politically feasible routes to addressing this problem for the crops that contribute to the issue, do you sort of, do you see any politically feasible routes to amending the Clean Water Act to address these exemptions? Or other kind of federal avenues that could address the problem in a way that is both useful and also politically realistic?
Cathy Kling: Yeah. Politically, I'm not a—my short answer is I don't know. But I have a few thoughts in that dimension. First of all, it is not the case that the federal government has not done some things to try to deal with this problem. While they cannot, under the Clean Water Act, regulate any of these diffuse sources of agricultural crop land for example, they have programs and have spent quite a bit of funding on programs funded to take land out of production for environmental benefits. That's the Conservation Reserve Program, which over years has taken, has paid anywhere from three to five percent of crop land across the US not to farm. And it's being paid not to farm because it's in environmentally sensitive areas that we, by taking them out of production, actually help to reduce the amount of nutrients.
There are also large programs, also funded by the federal government, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Conservation Security Program, there's a variety of state programs. These are all federal or state dollars that are being used to incentivize farmers, compensate them to take land out of production. Unfortunately, and that of course is politically feasible. That's why I'm noting that.
Daniel Raimi: Right, because it's happening.
Cathy Kling: Because it's happening and it has been happening, and those programs are generally very well appreciated. Unfortunately, when you look at the plans needed, for example in the Midwest to solve the Gulf problem, much, much more change has to happen on the landscape than the current set of funding provides. One option is that we increase taxpayer funding to pay farmers to take more land out of production, or to pay them to put on practices, to change how they do row crop agriculture, a whole lot more.
I don't think that's politically feasible, but I'm not good at the crystal ball. At that point in the conversation is where I then note that, while paying to reduce pollution can certainly work and there's been some great success stories from that in local areas, it's not how we have ever chosen, as far as I know, to address pollution from any other source. Instead, we follow a standard polluter pays paradigm and we require changes all through industry.
As economists, we really like that, because if all of industry, a particular industry, is required to address the problem, then all of their costs go up, and when all of their costs go up, that means that market start responses get into play, prices of other commodities, other things will change. Consumers will end up paying a little bit more, maybe a lot, depends on the case. Land, rent will probably adjust and some producers will most definitely feel some increased costs and possibly lower profit, possibly not. It all depends on how these supply and demand works out. The point I simply want to make is that, that has been the standard approach that we have taken and that has been very successful in addressing some industrial sources of pollution and other air pollutants, for example.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. We've been talking about a couple specific types of pollution, water pollution, but I know you're interested in sort of the broad array of water pollution issues that are out there. And one of the projects that I've heard you talk about a little bit that I think is at a, kind of an early stage, that I'm hoping you can tell us about, is some work that you're thinking about doing to develop a social cost of water pollution. This is the last question before we go to our Top of the Stack segment, but can you tell us about this idea of developing a social cost of water pollution?
Cathy Kling: Yeah, it's basically stealing the idea from those smart people before me who have developed a lot of work, huge amount of work, in the social cost of carbon. That concept, I think, has been very effective in helping people think about the trade offs that we have to face and address when we have pollution, whether it's a greenhouse gas carbon that's contributing to global warming, or whether it's pollutants that are entering our rivers and streams and impacting ecosystem services and people. It's really that idea, to try to think about, what are the costs being imposed on the end users on the ecosystem services resulting from pollution? And you're correct that it's much broader in spirit and concept than nutrient pollution. Although it certainly is very relevant to that.
There's remaining plastics, is something we're starting to hear a great deal about in our waterways, oceans. Those are examples. They remain toxics at lower levels. There's just a whole variety of pollutants. Frankly, my goal, with funding from the Atkinson Center here at Cornell, in developing social costs of water pollution, would be to start with nutrients. Not only because I know it better than anything else, but there is enough research and enough data, I think, that we can start to really get a handle on the various ecosystem service impacts that nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, are imposing. There are drinking water concerns, things like the cost associated, risks of shutting down the drinking water facilities into Toledo. There is some nitrogen, nitrates that end up in drinking water to private wells that do not get filtration. And so there are people that may be inadvertently exposed to higher than purely safe nitrate levels. The problems with harmful algal blooms can sicken people, they can provide rashes, make you make you feel ill. There are clear cases where pets have died as a result of contact.
And then there's the whole problem of dead zones, which are related to these nutrients, where large bodies of water experience a loss of oxygen, because of these blooms. As they fall through the water, they decompose. Fish are killed, there's commercial fishery impacts, there's recreational fishery impacts, and there's very clear impacts on local enjoyment of life for people who see big gunky green stuff on their water. It shows up in housing values. It shows up in where people visit for recreational sites. And so beginning to think about all those different end points and bringing them together to quantify and monetize the costs that those are imposing, and where they're large, and where they may not be large. There may be places that this is not a big concern, and we should focus our efforts elsewhere. It's really about directing our efforts where we can get the most benefit from addressing nutrient problems.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And it's such a fascinating idea. Please keep us posted on it. I'm sure you will and we'll hear about it at RFF, and we'd love to have you back to talk more specifically about this topic as it develops over time.
But now let's go to our last question, which is the question we ask of all of our guests, which is what's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack. Something you've been enjoying lately that you'd recommend to our listeners. And I'll get us started with an article that I came across. You mentioned that you grew up in Michigan. I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I was at Michigan a few weeks ago for a little week vacation. And I've read an article that was really interesting, and you probably know much more about this than I do, but it was about Great Lakes water quality, and talking about how the lakes have, in some cases, actually become quite a bit clearer, in part due to reduced runoff and reduce sewage discharge, which is a good thing.
But there's also been these invasive mussels that have come into the lakes and they filter water. And that also makes the lakes clearer, which one would think on first blush is a good thing, but clear water is an indication of less phytoplankton. And again, I'm starting to get out of my depth here, but less phytoplankton in the water, which means, sort of less food from the bottom of the food chain and less support for larger fish. It can actually harm the fishing economy in these lakes. And so that was just a fascinating topic to learn about. And we'll put a link to this article that I read so people can learn more about it. But how about you, Cathy? What's on the top of your stack?
Cathy Kling: Yeah. I love, I have two things I'd like to suggest. Both things that I've been reading this summer. I've been enjoying reading some poetry and I really enjoy Mary Oliver. There's, she has written a number of short poems, generally focused on nature. New and selected poems. She's a winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her poem "Wild Geese" is spectacular. I encourage everybody to look at her work in general, and that particular poem.
The other book I thoroughly enjoyed this summer is a book entitled Eager, and that is meant to evoke eager beaver. And it is a subtitled, the surprising secret life of beavers and why they matter, by Ben Goldfarb. And it is a fascinating historical and current account of the enormous change in beaver activity, habitat and impact in the United States over the last couple hundred years. How the removal of these amazing critters has fundamentally altered our landscape, our waterways in many good ways for the way humans want to use waterways, but in some bad ways that we'd kind of wish we could get back. But anyway, it's a fascinating read and I really encourage folks to pick it up.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, those both sound great. Thank you. I think that that's our first poetry recommendation and our first beaver of recommendation on the show. Two new ones to get into. Awesome. Thank you so much. Well, Cathy Kling again, thank you. We really appreciate you joining us here on Resources Radio and we appreciate the many contributions you give to RFF as a member of our board. And, thank you for sharing your insight about water pollution and beavers and everything else.
Cathy Kling: Thank you very much. It's been a joy.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.