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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 21, 2003

Air Date: March 21, 2003


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The Matter of Oil

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Although Iraq lags as an oil producer, its petroleum reserves are the second largest in the world, valued at more than $4 trillion dollars. Critics of the Bush Administration say oil is a motivation for war with Iraq. But according to John Maggs, staff reporter of the National Journal, it’s not that simple. Host Steve Curwood talks with Maggs about his article, "The Matter of Oil," published in the magazine’s current issue. (07:45)

No Go on ANWR / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

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There was a crucial vote this week in the U.S. Senate on whether or not to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. But as Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports, the issue is not dead. (03:30)

Emerging Science Note/From the Belly of a Penguin / Maggie Villiger

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on how penguins can store food for weeks in their stomachs without it spoiling. (01:15)

Household Pollutants

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Common household products like hairspray, floor polish and car wax are now the second largest contributor to smog in southern California, second only to tailpipe exhaust. Host Steve Curwood talks about the development with Gary Polakovic, air pollution reporter for the Los Angeles Times. (05:00)

A Journey Down Two Rivers (part 1) / Clay Scott

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Reporter Clay Scott takes us down the Chattahoochee River. The river begins in Northern Georgia and makes its way south to Florida where it ultimately empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the Chattahoochee runs through Atlanta where a growing population, and the drought, are putting pressures on the river’s ecosystems and the livelihood of fishermen further downstream. (13:00)

A Journey Down Two Rivers (part 2) / Clay Scott

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We continue our journey down the Chattahoochee, where the river changes names and character. Clay Scott reports. (13:00)

The Waiting Season / Verlyn Klinkenborg

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This year, in many places, spring has been slow to arrive, and when it does, it comes in fits and starts. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg says he’s savoring the suspense. (03:30)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: John Maggs, Gary PolakovicREPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Clay ScottCOMMENTATORS: Verlyn KlinkenborgNOTES: Maggie Villiger


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

War with Iraq: how credible are claims by some critics that it's all about oil?

MAGGS: It's much easier to see that the United States is going to Iraq to promote the security of the Middle East as the source of the oil that we use every day. It's a lot harder to see how the United States might seize control of that oil, as some suspect.

CURWOOD: Oil and the motives for war, this week on Living on Earth. Also, hairspray: it helps hold up the 'dos of Hollywood celebrities, and it's now among the household products that have become the second leading cause of air pollution in Tinseltown.

POLAKOVIC: We're getting to the point where the smog war in Los Angeles is coming down to eking out the last few grams of solvent from shoe polish or Formula 409. You know, you're really starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel for emissions reductions.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more, this week, coming up right after this.


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The Matter of Oil


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: At any anti-war protest these days, from Boise to Berlin, you're likely to see signs declaring "No blood for oil," or "We don't want your oil war." The sentiments are a testament to the belief held by many that President Bush and the other former oil men in his administration are waging war against Iraq largely motivated by their desire to control its oil, if not outright, then by putting in place an Iraqi regime that would dramatically increase production. That, in turn, would break OPEC's monopoly and spark an international price war leading to reductions at the pumps that would ultimately benefit U.S. consumers.

But reporter John Maggs says it's not that simple. He writes about this “Matter of Oil” in the current issue of the National Journal, and he joins me now from his office there in Washington, D.C.

CURWOOD: John, you say there are two different answers, really, to the question is it all about oil. What exactly do you mean?

MAGGS: Well, the way that it is about oil is that all U.S. policy and U.S. interest in the Middle East is about the fact that it's the place where all of the oil is. So, it's hard to take oil out of the equation.

CURWOOD: What's the part that says it isn't about oil?

MAGGS: Well, unlike a lot of countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico and, in fact, Iraq itself, the U.S. government is not in the oil business. So, in a direct way, they really couldn’t control the oil and produce it and get it to market because they don't know how to do it and they don't have the resources to do it.

Now it could be possible, I suppose, for the U.S. to divert that oil to U.S. oil companies. And it's true that George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney and others in his administration have been involved with the oil industry and some suspect that there might be some kind of back channel of communications going on there. But the truth is that producing oil in another country and getting it to market is a lot more complex than simply going in and signing over the oil fields, and it's going to take a lot of expertise and a lot of investment. And it's not even clear that the U.S. industry is willing to make that investment. They haven't in the past.

CURWOOD: Now, there's yet another theory. This one is based around oil prices and even presidential politics here in the United States. And basically, this one goes, look, if the U.S. can release the stranglehold on Iraqi oil, production will go up, prices will go down, and in the end it will trickle down to U.S. consumers and business in the form of lower oil prices just in time for the 2004 elections.

But looking at your article, John, you write “but if the administration cares about the state of the economy on Election Day, confronting Iraq couldn't have been a worse idea.”

MAGGS: Well, talking about what's happened up till now, confronting Iraq has driven oil prices up to nearly $40 a barrel, and it's probably been a major factor for why the United States has had slow growth over the last six to nine months.

When you look past the war to when oil prices come back down again, it's hard to see how, even between now and 2004, enough of a gain could be made to make up for all of the losses of the last six to nine months. And if you look at oil prices, they're completely related to the escalation of the war rhetoric. So it certainly hasn't helped the U.S. economy so far, and it's not clear that it's going to be able to help the U.S. economy post-Saddam to make up for the damage that's been done.

CURWOOD: When you wrote your piece in the National Journal, you said that it's not really about oil, the war, but as soon as the war is over it's all about oil. What did you mean by that?

MAGGS: Well, it's certainly going to be all about oil as far as getting Iraq back on its feet and rebuilt. The country has no resources and not much of an economy beyond the oil industry. Paying the billions of dollars it will take to rebuild that country will require the orderly operation of the oil industry. And that's one of the strongest arguments for why it's very unlikely that the United States would seek to somehow change ownership or divert its oil resources. There's an Iraqi national oil company that's probably the strongest and best-run institution in Iraq, and they're going to be the ones that are going to have to retain control of the oil and get oil wells back on-line and producing, so that that money for reconstruction will be there.

CURWOOD: One of the things we hear from the national environmental groups and others is that, look, if the U.S. would only be more energy-efficient it wouldn't have to rely so much on the Middle East for oil, and then the U.S. wouldn't have to fight wars like this one. But you report that the U.S. actually has gotten much more efficient, even since the Gulf War in 1990.

MAGGS: That's right. What's happened over the last 10 or 15 years is that the economy itself has become much more oil-efficient. In 1990 the United States burned 17 million barrels of oil a day, and that was to run an economy that was $5.8 trillion dollars in size. That amounts to about $934 dollars of output for every barrel of oil. But in 2002 the U.S. economy burned only a bit more oil, 19 million barrels a day, but that was to run an economy that had grown to $10.4 trillion dollars in size. That's about $1500 dollars in output per barrel of oil, a 50 percent gain from 1990. So we've become a lot less dependent on oil for every dollar of output.

CURWOOD: John, I'm still a little puzzled. On the one hand, this region is all about oil, and on the other hand, your analysis concludes that this particular war is not about oil.

MAGGS: Well, I would say that the oil economy, and the way oil figures into the working of the world economy, is such that you could say that the forces go far beyond the abilities of governments to influence them. And the example I would use is the fact that just in the last three or four months, because of events in the oil economy, in particular, because of some shortages of oil that the U.S. normally gets from Venezuela, the United States has become, by far, the largest importer of Iraqi oil.

It's a completely free and unfettered market, decisions are not made for political reasons, and ultimately, I think that's why no one like the United States could seize Iraq's oil resources and divert them in some way. It's a much too globalized and market-driven economy.

CURWOOD: What about the argument that the United States needs to go into the Middle East to keep the oil economy functioning?

MAGGS: Well, it's much easier to see that the United States is going to Iraq to promote the security of the Middle East as the source of the oil that we use every day. It's a lot harder to see how the United States might seize control of that oil, as some suspect.

CURWOOD: John Maggs is a staff reporter with the National Journal. His article "A Matter of Oil" appears in the current edition of the magazine. Thanks for being with me today.

MAGGS: My pleasure.

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No Go on ANWR

CURWOOD: On another matter of oil, there were new developments in the past week in what's now becoming a perennial question on Capitol Hill--whether or not to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploratory drilling. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum has the latest details.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The final speeches on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge came just hours before President Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to disarm. And though much of the rhetoric focused on jobs, caribou, and pipelines, the impending war was an undeniable presence.

MURKOWSKI: There's kind of an 800-pound gorilla that is sitting in the chamber now.

SOLOMON GREENBAUM: Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Republican freshman from Alaska, said the conflict in Iraq is yet another reason to open the Refuge for drilling. Murkowski reminded her fellow senators that U.S. imports of Iraqi oil have nearly doubled over the past several months.

MURKOWSKI: We send billions of dollars over there to Iraq to Saddam Hussein, who in turn sells us the oil that we place in our aircraft and we send our men and our women over to defend no-fly zones, when we could be producing domestically.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Democrats also invoked the war, but to make the case against drilling. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman said the American people feel insecure today and need to know some things won't change.

LIEBERMAN: This is a place from which we gain strength, from which we gain tranquility. Let us not, in the pressures of the moment, let it be destroyed forever.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The details of the Refuge debate were the same points lawmakers have been making for decades. They disputed how much oil it would produce, how many jobs drilling would create, even whether the Refuge is pretty or not. Most senators had made up their minds a long time ago. But there were a few fence-sitters, and when the tally began, it was these senators everyone watched.

MALE: Mr. Coleman, ay. Mr. Sununu...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The motion to keep the Refuge off-limits won out, 52 to 48, but minutes after the vote both sides said the battle would continue. In other words, nothing really changed. The Arctic Refuge has become an ongoing symbolic and political behemoth. It's more talked about than perhaps any other single environmental issue.

Roger Herrera is with Arctic Power. His group is funded largely by Alaska. It has received $7.5 million dollars from the state in the past ten years, and it's sole purpose is to lobby for drilling in the Refuge. But Herrera says environmental groups are as dependent on the conflict as anyone.

(Photo: Ken Madsen/TheWilderness Society)

HERRERA: Oh, I think the worst thing that could happen with the environmental groups would be the passage of a wilderness bill which would close the coastal plain and take it away from their fundraising portfolio.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Environmental groups acknowledge the Refuge plays a major role in their campaigns, but Pete Rafle of the Wilderness Society says the idea that they like the clash over the Refuge for the donations and attention it rakes in is insulting.

RAFLE: This is not about a perpetual campaign. We want to win this thing and win it for good. That's the ultimate goal, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to spread some other kind of story.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For this year, at least, the Refuge debate may be closed. But drilling proponents pledge they'll be back, which means on both sides the debate and the dollars will keep flowing.

For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, in Washington.

[MUSIC: Cooder/Bhatt - Isa Lei “A Meeting by the River Water” Lily Acoustics (1993)]

CURWOOD: For the latest news about the war and the environment, go to our website, loe.org. We have stories on efforts to prepare for any new oil spills in the Persian Gulf, the impact on people and wildlife, and how the region is still feeling the effects of the first Gulf War. That's loe.org.

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Emerging Science Note/From the Belly of a Penguin

(Photo: Cécile Thouzeau)   

CURWOOD: Coming up, move over Land Rover. Common household products, including nail polish remover and deodorant, have moved right behind cars and trucks as the biggest source of pollution in the Los Angeles area.

First, this Note on Emerging Science from Maggie Villiger.

[MUSIC: Science Note Theme]

VILLIGER: Regurgitated food might not sound like an appetizing meal, but that's what king penguins feed their babies. Consider that the food these penguin kids are getting may have originally been eaten up to three weeks ago, and mealtime starts to sound even less appealing.

But king penguins have a unique ability to keep undigested food fresh in their stomachs for weeks on end while they fast. And recently, researchers have been looking into just how the birds prevent food stored in their stomachs from going bad. They visited king penguin colonies in Antarctica where some males were fasting while incubating their eggs. The scientists took samples of the birds' stomach contents.

They found that even though conditions like the temperature, pH and nutrients available inside the stomach were all favorable for bacterial growth, bacteria were not flourishing. In fact, dead or deformed bacteria and spores were much more common in the stomachs of penguins that were conserving food than they were in penguins that were digesting their meals.

Scientists think penguin bellies contain an anti-microbial substance that helps keep food from spoiling. They hope to further test the birds' stomach contents to identify the anti-microbial substance and figure out how the penguins control these bacteria inhibitors.

That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Maggie Villiger.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Cooder/Bhatt - Isa Lei “A Meeting by the River Water” Lily Acoustics (1993)]

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Household Pollutants

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Coming up, the pressure rises on the waters of the Chattahoochee River. But first, ordinary household products, such as cleansers, makeup, and paint, are now the Los Angeles region's second leading source of air pollution, after car and truck exhaust. That was the lead in a recent Los Angeles Times page one story. I'll repeat it, though, because it's a little hard to believe.

Products that you find in any household garage or bathroom are now the second leading source of air pollution in a region famous for its air problems.

The author of that article was Gary Polakovic of the LA Times, who joins me now. Welcome, Gary.


CURWOOD: Now, tell me, what are these products that are adding up to, you report, 108 tons of hydrocarbons a day in the air of the LA basin?

POLAKOVIC: I know, can you believe that? That's such a big number. It's kind of a who'd-a-thunk-it kind of a figure. When you look around the LA basin, we have all these high-profile sources of pollution, like the trucks and the ports and power plants and all this kind of thing, and then along comes these consumer products as a major source, and it really kind of snuck up on us.

What we're talking about here are products that everybody uses. These are items that are right under our nose, within our home, in our kitchen cupboards, our garages, our cleaning cabinets. And we're talking things like glue, and room freshener, antiperspirant, rubbing alcohol, perfume, floor wax, and on and on and on. Just whatever you find in the kitchen cabinet, that's the kind of stuff we're talking about here.

CURWOOD: Hairspray has to be on this list.

POLAKOVIC: Hairspray is definitely on that list. It's a big one.

CURWOOD: So Gary, if I understand this right, these products themselves aren't polluting, it's that they combine to form smog, ozone?

POLAKOVIC: Yep, you're exactly right, Steve. Every time you use one of these products, you get a little tiny puff or release of vapor, really. You can see this as you're cleaning. You can watch the stuff evaporate into the air. And once it evaporates into the air, not only does it pollute the interior of your home, the so-called indoor air pollution problem, but it escapes into the atmosphere. And once it's airborne, it starts mixing with chemicals from power plants and tailpipes and all the other stuff to create ozone, which is the most attractable pollutant in the Los Angeles region and a major lung irritant.

CURWOOD: Now tell me, Gary, is it because there are just so many more people using so many more products, millions of people using nail polish remover and rubbing alcohol? Or is it that we've cut the other pollutions so successfully that these cleaners and gels are what we have left getting into the air?

POLAKOVIC: It's both, Steve. What you see is, across California, you see emissions from almost every other source coming down very dramatically, and that would be tailpipes and power plants and factories and the like. And when we're getting to the point where the smog war in Los Angles is coming down to eking out the last few grams of solvent from shoe polish or Formula 409, you're really starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel for emissions reductions.

In the future, because of population growth, they figure that the emissions from this source should grow about 15 percent. By 2020, what that means is that consumer products are going to be producing more hydrocarbons than all the cars and all the trucks in the Los Angeles region.

CURWOOD: Wow. Now, I understand that California may soon become, or perhaps already is, the first state to levy pollution fees on manufacturers who make these products, such as the car waxes and rubbing alcohol and hairspray. Will we be seeing companies changing their product lines, reformulating, not just for California, but for the whole country?

POLAKOVIC: There are definitely more controls coming in California. That has big implications for the country and for industry. For starters, whatever regulations California pursues, particularly in the consumer products category, are copied in other states and by the U.S. EPA. So what we do here basically becomes the national standard.

Usually, though, industry doesn't wait for that. They sell so much product in California that once California sets new standards, for the most part, they reformulate their products for all of North America, so they are watching this very, very closely, too.

CURWOOD: California regulators have been regulating the air for a long, long time. They're really veterans at this. But you've got to admit this is kind of a curve ball. How are they handling this category of pollutants?

POLAKOVIC: California regulators are not new to this category. They've been at this for some time. But what they're saying is that they need to redouble their efforts. That is, that the work that they have done so far is not keeping pace with the growth in emissions from this category. LA, for example, needs to cut these emissions by about 80 percent in the next seven years, and that is going to take a monumental effort.

There are constraints to making progress. One is these products are so ubiquitous and they're very hard to regulate each and every category. I mean, there's just hundreds of these different categories. But beyond that, two, industry is saying, look, we have made significant reductions, we're not really sure how much more emission reductions we can squeeze out of these.

And then a third constraint is California law. Let's say you have a roll-on antiperspirant that emits very few pollutants and you have a spray antiperspirant which emits a lot of pollutants on the aerosol can. California can't ban the spray can and require only the roll-on can. The law prohibits them from doing that. So, until something like that is addressed, they're going to have trouble marching forward.

CURWOOD: Gary Polakovic is a reporter with the LA Times. Thanks so much for taking this time today.

POLAKOVIC: You're welcome, Steve.

[MUSIC: Govinda - City of Pleasure “Erotic Rhythms From Earth” Earthtone (2001)]

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A Journey Down Two Rivers (part 1)

CURWOOD: The Southeast part of the U.S. may be lush and green, but it’s not exempt from the growing demand for fresh water. And one place where water disputes are heating up involves the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee flows down from the mountains of North Georgia and through Atlanta. Along the way, it provides water for drinking, crops, electricity and recreation. But development pressures in Atlanta are sucking the river dry and years of drought haven’t helped.

Politicians are struggling to find a way to share the water, but they have yet to find easy answers. Producer Clay Scott begins our story at the source of the Chattahoochee in Northern Georgia.

SCOTT: The Chattahoochee River rises in the mountains of North Georgia, in the southern end of the Appalachian range. I want to find its exact source but I need a bit of help. In the town of Helen, Georgia I meet Delbert Greear, a 54-year-old math teacher and native of the mountains. He agrees to be my guide.


SCOTT: A few miles north of town, Delbert eases his battered pickup onto a dirt road in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Leaving the truck at the trailhead, we begin to walk.


GREEAR: Cool little gap, isn’t it?

SCOTT: Oh, yeah.

GREER: Blackberry bushes and the possible home of the old copperhead there…

SCOTT: For an hour, we climb the mountain known as Jack’s Knob. Delbert points out white and blackjack oak, sassafras and sourwood, poke bush and poplar. Stopping on a ridge top to catch our breath, a sudden mountain rain shower takes us by surprise.


SCOTT: There’s no adequate shelter nearby but Delbert quickly builds a small fire. As we hunch over it for warmth, Delbert speaks of growing up in the headwaters of the Chattahoochee.

GREEAR: I have a specific liking for this neck of the woods. It’s in my bones and blood. Going down the river, you’ll see other people that see their particular neck of the woods as being the Garden of Eden or slightly removed, however slightly removed from it.

SCOTT: The narrow ridge we’re on divides the watersheds of the Chattahoochee and the Tennessee Rivers. Standing in a rainstorm in a forest of nearly tropical lushness, it’s difficult to remember a bitter conflict is being fought over the waters that originate here. Too many people, Delbert says, take that water for granted.

GREEAR: Everybody that lives on it, you have to think about the people below you and say, we got some sort of obligation to send the water on and not to overuse and be selfish with it.

SCOTT: Finally, the rain lets up. We make our way across a ravine to where a steady trickle of water flows from beneath a granite boulder.


SCOTT: This is the spot where the Chattahoochee begins its 540-mile course. The water is cold, sweet and delicious with just a hint of mineral taste. We follow the flow down the mountain where the trickle comes together with another and another. Soon it’s become a full-fledged mountain stream, home to rare speckled trout. At this point, Delbert announces, the Chattahoochee is a river.


SCOTT: Back in Helen I meet Delbert’s father, Philip, a former farmer who late in life became a professor of ecology. After a supper of grilled steak and cornbread and beans, he invites me to the back porch to talk.

Philip, who has lost his sight in recent years and much of his hearing, is passionate about the Chattahoochee--a love affair that started in 1936 when he and his brother decided to follow the river to the Gulf of Mexico.

P. GREEAR: We wanted to go down the river. We had no purpose. We just wanted to go down the river. We had grown up here on it, it was our river and we knew that it went somewhere. So, we built this pair of boats that became one boat, two feet wide and 16 feet long, built out of one-inch thick undressed lumber.

SCOTT: Fortified with canned pineapple juice, oatmeal, and a slab of bacon, the Greear brothers set forth. They traveled at the speed the water flowed, about two miles an hour.

P. GREEAR: The mathematicians will tell you that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Our decision was that the longest distance between two points is a meandering river. [CHUCKLES]

SCOTT: That meandering river carried the two teenagers south for nearly 300 miles before, exhausted, they abandoned their boat and hitchhiked home. Though the Chattahoochee was muddy, Philip said they fished and swam in its currents, boiled its water for coffee and oatmeal, and helped themselves to watermelons growing on its banks.

Today, the urban sprawl north of Atlanta has swallowed the watermelon fields and few people dare to swim in the river.


BETHEA: You see trash, footballs, you see all kinds of other waste and debris that’s floated here off of the city streets and through the storm drains, right where we get our drinking water.

SCOTT: Sally Bethea is the director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an organization that’s been leading the fight to clean up the river. She takes me on a boat tour through the heart of Atlanta. On our way we pass three of the city’s over-taxed wastewater treatment plants, not far from where drinking water is being pumped out.

BETHEA: Just immediately downstream you can see Peachtree Creek. It’s one of the biggest tributaries to the Chattahoochee and also one of the most polluted.

SCOTT: The Chattahoochee below Peachtree Creek is one of the most polluted stretches of river in the country. Many of Atlanta’s antiquated sewer lines also carry storm water, causing more than occasional overflows of the system.

In the 1990s the city paid $20 million in fines for improper treatment of sewage. Atlanta has been ordered to overhaul the system by 2007, but despite the bits of trash we see, I am struck by how isolated I feel in the middle of a city of four million. As we float past banks lined with sycamore and river birch, we startle wood ducks and mallards, kingfishers and blue herons.

But there’s more to the Chattahoochee, says Sally Bethea, than meets the eye.

BETHEA: This river is still, to me, certainly, a very beautiful river. It has many different kinds of faces. And the water doesn’t always look like there are problems with its quality. But I can tell you after a heavy rainstorm, the e.coli level in this river is just off the charts. And it’s just an unacceptable level for a river that runs through a vibrant city like this. We’ve got to do better.

SCOTT: The pollution problem is critical, not only for the health of the river itself but because Atlanta takes nearly all its drinking water from the Chattahoochee. It’s the smallest American river to supply so large a city.

Atlanta sits on a hard bed of igneous rock without easy access to the underground aquifers that supply fresh water in many cities. And the city is growing by the day. In the past ten years, the population of greater Atlanta has jumped over 40 percent, from 2.9 to 4.2 million.

Water consumption has kept pace, climbing from 320 million gallons a day ten years ago, to well over 400 million. Within 30 years that number is expected to reach more than 700 million gallons per day, a figure, says Sally Bethea, that spells potential disaster for both the river and the city.

BETHEA: There is simply a limit to the amount of growth that can occur in metro Atlanta and be sustained by its rivers. This is a shallow river. It’s a river that can only provide so much drinking water and waste water assimilation. The worst-case scenario is that in 30 years, where we’re sitting right now you’ll see nothing but a drainage ditch carrying away the waste of parking lots and sewer lines and sewer plants.


SCOTT: But Atlanta’s rampant growth shows no sign of slowing down. J.T. Williams has built thousands of homes in the greater Atlanta area. I interviewed him at the country club of one of his many gated communities.


WILLIAMS: Every decision we make about what property we buy and what property we develop is concerned with water. It has become the number one question that we have. There has to be adequate supply of water. Like the golf courses, we have to get the water in order to have the beautiful grasses.

SCOTT: Williams says it’s simplistic to blame developers for the area’s water shortage, saying they are only responding to consumer demand. But the country-club style developments that characterize much of Atlanta’s growth, others say, use far too much water.

Jeff Rader, the president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, says the industry can help shape demand by educating the public about water conservation.

RADER: They like the luxury of a lot of water. And certainly we have been sort of sold on broad green lawns as a primary manifestation of the good life, particularly in suburban areas. But those are really sort of arbitrary aesthetic preferences and there can be a lot done to move us in the other direction. The key, I think, will be for not only the building industry to assume responsibility for that, but really our entire regional ethic has to change to recognize the scarcity and the value of water.

SCOTT: But even with a growing awareness of the scarcity of water, even with the type of conservation measures that Jeff Rader and others advocate, the water of the Chattahoochee is a finite resource. A recent study projects that the river will be tapped out by the year 2030. By other estimates, the Chattahoochee’s day of reckoning could come much sooner.

Communities downstream from Atlanta take their share of water for agriculture and other uses, but by far the biggest strain is put on the river by Atlanta. I asked Bob Kerr of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources if the city should be allowed to grow unchecked.

KERR: Unless we pass laws to keep people from moving here or we in some way curtail the growth through lack of jobs and those kind of things, Atlanta will grow. Now, should we say, all you people that were going to come to Atlanta, how about going down to Columbus and just take the water there? It’s the same water. If it’s not used in Atlanta and it’s used in Columbus, it’s the same water.

SCOTT: If continued growth is inevitable, says Bob Kerr, then, ultimately, additional water sources must be explored. There’s talk of building new reservoirs for water storage, or even of piping in water from elsewhere. But some people, like Professor Bruce Ferguson of the University of Georgia, believe some partial solutions may be closer at hand.

FERGUSON: The amount of water that we’re throwing away from impervious surfaces is enormous, and we can reclaim 50 percent of that, anyway, very easily.

SCOTT: Ferguson is an expert in the field of storm water management. He believes that better management of rainwater could do much to alleviate water problems in the South and elsewhere in the U.S. He shows me half a dozen samples of porous concrete which could replace conventional asphalt and concrete on streets and parking lots.

The porous pavement would allow rainwater to pass through into the earth where it would slowly work its way into tributaries and rivers. This would not only cut down on floods and erosion, he says, but create a natural and efficient water storage system.

FERGUSON: That water belongs in the soil. That is where it went before we came along and it is a great gift that nature is able to work, if we’ll only let it.

SCOTT: In the meantime, as experts debate the best way to keep Atlanta supplied with water, communities farther down in the watershed, in South Georgia, Alabama and Florida, are staking their own claims to the precious resource.

In 1998 the governors of the three states were entrusted by Congress with the task of working out an allocation formula, but more than a dozen deadlines have come and gone since then and the tri-state talks continue to plod on.


SCOTT: Back in Helen, Georgia, Dr. Philip Greear predicts those talks will ultimately be fruitless unless decision-makers look beyond regional interests and dare to take a broader view of the issue of water.

P. GREEAR: Basically, to me, there is in our culture and all human cultures the absence of respect for natural systems themselves, and that is particularly true about water.

The water cannot be divided between Florida and Alabama and Georgia. I know they’ve been working, the politicians have been working on it for years and they can’t come to any agreement because they can’t answer the question about who owns the water. Because there’s no answer to that question; we don’t own it.

[MUSIC: Kelly Joe Phelps I’ve been Converted Lead Me On Burnside (1994)]

CURWOOD: You can hear our program anytime on our website. You can also go there to take a chance on winning a safari for two to the wilds of Africa. The address is www.loe.org. That's loe.org.

You can send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. You can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CD's, tapes and transcripts are $15.

In a moment, we’ll travel further down the Chattahoochee where the river changes names and character. You’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Milton Cardon - Yemaya “The Pulse of Life” Ellipsis (1992)]

Related link:
Living on Earth’s Special Feature: “A River With Two Names: The Chattahoochee & Apalachicola Rivers”">

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A Journey Down Two Rivers (part 2)

CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Our story of the Chattahoochee River doesn’t stop in Atlanta. Farther south, the river forms the border between Georgia and Alabama. At Lake Seminole on the Florida line, the Chattahoochee joins together with the Flint River to form the Apalachicola, which flows a hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The river changes character and supports different ecosystems along its course, from swamps and ravines and flood plains to the unique estuary at Apalachicola Bay.

The river provides a livelihood to people who fish and boat and it’s home to hundreds of species of wildlife, some found nowhere else. And all who live on the river are affected by decisions made hundreds of miles upstream. Clay Scott continues his journey down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers.

SCOTT: As it flows south along the Alabama-Georgia line, the Chattahoochee River passes through sleepy towns like Cottonton, Gordon, and Holy Trinity. This is farmland: fields of cotton, soybeans, and peanuts broken up by occasional patches of woods.

But below Lake Seminole, on the Florida-Georgia border, the Chattahoochee becomes the Apalachicola, a river with a markedly different character. Much of the land it flows through is a virtual wilderness, sparsely inhabited forest of pines and hardwoods with impenetrable swamps and ravines.

Only a handful of people live in these north Florida woods, and their lives are defined by the river. One of them is Marilyn Blackwell.

BLACKWELL: I piddle in several different things; you know, crawfishing, deadhead logging, catfishing, just, you know, people, a lot of people in this area did things, you know, seasonally, you know, to make a living that is gone now.

SCOTT: The Apalachicola River has always provided Marilyn with at least a modest living, but it’s in the adjacent swamps with their tupelo and cypress trees that she feels most at home.

BLACKWELL: There’s rivers everywhere. But you haven’t got the river swamp everywhere. And it’s just a wonderland. And I spent a lot of time in it, and learned a lot of things. And it didn’t take long to see the changes going on in what was being done, you know.

SCOTT: Over the years, Marilyn saw both the river and the swamps she depended on being degraded and destroyed. One fine day, she tells me, I just woke up angry. She takes me out in a 12-foot boat to show me the source of her anger.


BLACKWELL: That’s another sand deposit. See where the tree line is back in yonder? River used to be way over there. See all these trees here that’s fell in? That’s from where they had the barges tied up and they left them tied up. And you see the force of the water is coming around and hitting that bank, and then rolled under them barges and cut that bank, undercut it and make the trees fall in. Plus that sand deposit right there, it keeps pushing the river, the water, that way.

SCOTT: The piles of sand she points to are the result of dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, mandated by Congress to keep the river open for commercial barges. The Corps maintains a channel nine feet deep and 100 feet wide, despite the fact that barge traffic in recent years has dwindled to almost nothing.

Meanwhile, the silt and sand from the dredging plugs up the sloughs that connect the river to the swamps: vital spawning and breeding ground for countless fish, birds, mammals, and other creatures.

BLACKWELL: It’s just like cutting arteries off in a body. The sloughs are where, in the summertime during low water, you know, there is a whole, you know, world out there where the otter stayed in low water, you know, they had, you know, water places back in there. And the deer and the raccoon and the birds, there was, you know, the ibis and all had rookeries back there on the sloughs, and all that’s dried up, filled in.

SCOTT: Marilyn Blackwell’s observations are echoed by John Blanchard, the biologist from the Nature Conservancy in Florida. Along with the dredging, Blanchard says, the sudden release of water from upstream dams creates a scouring action along the riverbed, further cutting off the river from the swamp and floodplain.

BLANCHARD: And as that river lowers, it disconnects the streams that did feed into it. So instead of having a connected stream that flows right into the river, what you have is a stream that has a waterfall before it gets to the river. That does at least one really bad thing, which is that it prevents species that live in the river from swimming back up these streams when they need to.

SCOTT: The number of species found here is staggering. The Apalachicola basin has the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the United States and Canada, including the Barbour’s Map turtle and the Apalachicola king snake. One hundred and thirty species of fish live here, 57 species of mammals, including the threatened Florida black bear, 300 species of birds, 1,300 plant species. All of them depend, in one way or another, on the intricate balance between the river, on the one hand, and the flood plain, swamps, and ravines. And that balance is being threatened, both by dredging and by low and irregular flows of water.

BLANCHARD: The real concern that we have here is that we will lose the quality and variability of the flows of this river. If we lose the variability of flows, that is, the floodplain ceases to be flooded at the right time and in the right quantity and for the right duration, many of those fish species will diminish in numbers dramatically.

SCOTT: The impact of those irregular flows is felt all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, 90 miles downstream. Some ocean species migrate up the river to spawn. Others remain in the bay but depend on the flow of fresh water from the river and the nutrients it brings with it. Not only are the marine species affected, but so are the people who depend on them for their living. And that includes almost everyone in Apalachicola, the town known to locals as Apalach.

GARRITY: To some people it might have seemed that we had a poor, hard life, but to me, I felt very rich.

SCOTT: Violet Garrity is the descendent of four generations of fishermen. I met her at the Ramshackle Marina where she lives in a houseboat with her husband and their three sons, all of them fishermen.

With the dwindling productivity of Apalachicola Bay, fishermen like the Garritys are being forced farther out to sea to find good fishing grounds. Many are quitting altogether.

GARRITY: To me it’s like it’s ending, and I just hate it for the area, because it’s so beautiful. And it just makes me sad, it really does. And we’re wondering if maybe it’s not time for us to leave this area, too, and find another place.

SCOTT: But it might not be easy to find another place like Apalachicola, at least like Apalachicola used to be. Until recently, this remote and beautiful stretch of coast had been miraculously untouched by developers. Now, condominiums and beachfront houses are starting to spring up where fishermen once launched their boats.

Still, the biggest threat to this town’s traditional way of life comes from upriver. Woody Miley manages the Apalachicola National Estuarine Reserve. To have a healthy bay, he says, you need a healthy river.

MILEY: A major part of the driving force for productivity in Apalachicola Bay is the leaf litter that falls in the river swamp. This system has evolved dependent on floods, so that that nutrient source is washed from the floodplain and goes through the detrital food web in Apalachicola Bay. We’re not talking just the potential loss of the Apalachicola estuarine system. Collectively and synergistically in these kind of things along the Gulf Coast, we are talking the potential loss of the productivity of the Gulf of Mexico.

SCOTT: Some people in Apalachicola run shrimp boats. Others are crabbers or hook-and-line fishermen. But more than anything, this bay has always been known for its famously delicate and delicious oysters. One in ten people here holds an oyster permit and many more work in the shucking houses. And it’s the oysters, says Woody Miley, that are most immediately affected by changes in the river.

MILEY: Apalachicola Bay needs an equitable allocation of fresh water to maintain the salinity gradient in the bay, in particular for the oysters. Because, with the exception of blue crabs, all parasites, predators, and diseases of oysters require high salinity. So when the river flows down, there is more of an influence from the open gulf, salinity goes up, the parasites, predators, and diseases move in and can totally devastate the bars.

SCOTT: Not only are there fewer oysters, people here say, but the lack of fresh water in the bay has begun to affect both their taste and their appearance. The result is a product that is saltier, less distinctive, less appealing and less marketable. For the men and women who harvest oysters in Apalachicola, that has made a hard life even harder.


SCOTT: Wade and Diana Marks are one of many husband and wife teams who work the oyster bars together. They balance nonchalantly in an ancient 14-foot wooden boat as pelicans skim the waves nearby. Wade probes the bottom for oysters with a wooden pole, then working the metal tongs, heaves them into the boat where he and his wife sort through the pile of mud and shells.

W. MARKS: Well, most of the days there’s a lot of shells, there’s a lot to go through to get a few oysters. Used to be like, you know, you could do good.

SCOTT: All this you gotta throw back?

W. MARKS: Yes. It’s a lot, a lot of work is what it usually is. You just can’t make what you want. [LAUGHS] If you get in ‘em good you can make $60, $70, you know, get going...

SCOTT: Is that enough to live on down here?

W. MARKS: Well, I get by, I’ll put it that way. About all you can do is get by.

SCOTT: It’s hard and sometimes dangerous work to harvest these oysters, oysters that end up in the finest restaurants in America. Few oystermen here have savings or insurance. For Wade and Diana Marks, the reward is simply to stay on the water, to avoid, for another season at least, the dreaded alternative: a land job. But both of them acknowledge that day is coming.

D. MARKS: I like working with my husband. It’s, you just gotta love the water to be on it. A lot better than land. Maybe next year we’ll have a land job, but not this year.

SCOTT: Many residents of Apalachicola blame Atlanta for the changes taking place. It’s the people of that faraway city, they feel, who are sucking their precious river dry with their swimming pools and lawns and fountains. But Atlanta is only a part of the equation, says Lindsay Thomas, who has been working on water issues for years.

THOMAS: This isn’t just about dividing gallons of water. A lot of people would like to think it’s that simple. But behind all of this there is the broader concern about water in the American southeast, as it is a global concern.

SCOTT: Until this fall, Thomas was the Federal Commissioner, coordinating 11 federal agencies and working with officials of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, trying to find an allocation formula for the waters of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers. But a formula alone cannot alleviate the water shortage in the southeast, he says, only strict conservation measures can.

THOMAS: If you just continue to grow and if you don’t conserve, and you don’t manage, and you don't forecast growth, and you don’t deal with all of those other issues that have an impact on water and natural resources, you could get in serious trouble. We do not manufacture water. We don’t create one ounce, not one gallon, not one pint, not one quart. The water is there that is provided by nature. That’s all we’ve got. It’s often said here in Georgia, all we got is all we’ve got.

SCOTT: Back on the Apalachicola River, their boat drifting slowly with the current, Marilyn Blackwell couldn’t agree more.

BLACKWELL: When it comes to, you know, people watering their lawns or a river surviving, you know, it’s got to be the river survives, because that’s part of our world. And when you keep chipping away at our world, you’re going to sooner or later, you know, you’re just going to do away with people.

SCOTT: The current water crisis has been a wakeup call to people here in the southeast, a reminder that not even this lush region is immune to shortages, as water becomes an increasingly limited and precious resource all over the world.

For Living on Earth, I’m Clay Scott on the Apalachicola River.


[MUSIC: Kelly Joe Phelps - Where Do I Go Now “Lead Me On” Burnside (1994)]

CURWOOD: You can learn more about life along the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers by going to loe.org. You’ll find images by nature photographers Joe and Monica Cook. You’ll hear ecologist Phillip Greear talk about his lifelong love of the river. And you can listen to Clay Scott’s personal notebook about his journey. It’s a trip down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers on the Living on Earth website, loe.org. That’s loe.org.


Related link:
Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

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The Waiting Season

CURWOOD: In many places across the country, spring this year has felt like a tease, departing just as quickly as it shows itself. For commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg, the waiting is a season all its own.

KLINKENBORG: At last, the starch has gone out of the snow. The hillsides and pastures have begun to slump, as though the melt were going to carry away the very topography of earth. After a day of warm rain, a hollow forms at the base of every tree. And when the clouds drift apart, the afternoon heat the trunks absorb makes the hollows bigger.

Last week, a bare patch of ground opened up on a south-facing hill. The call of birds at the feeders began to change almost a month ago. You could tell that something had been added to the perfunctory songs of winter, even if you couldn't say just what it was.

All of this is encouraging. Yet the garden catalogues still lie in an undisturbed heap. The top layer of soil is still a good foot and a half beneath the snow, and the gardening zeal I should be feeling lies buried well below that, down where the beetle grubs doze. Every time I get ready to start making the seed lists I should have made a month ago, we get another six inches of light powder, which hurls me backward in time, no matter how short-lived the new snow turns out to be.

The thaw is as fickle as the blonde coyote my wife saw in the pasture the other day. It stood there boldly for a while, driving the dogs crazy, then it vanished into the edge of the woods, leaving only its canine musk behind. Spring is going to have to come this year, not with hints and prognostications but with a solid blow to the head. Otherwise, I won't believe it.

The surest sign that spring will come is on the blacktop roads. By mid-January the highways were full of mild ripples. The ripples gradually sharpened into ridges, and as rain began to fall and freeze in the night, the frost sheared off whole layers of asphalt. Just up the main road from our house, an axle-deep car length pit has opened. By now, we know every heave in our stretch of road. We weave up and down the highway, trying to avoid the bone-rattling shocks that nearly jump you into the other lane.

I keep a long list of things that need doing this spring, mainly because the list itself feels like an accomplishment. It's been too cold to build pasture pens for the chickens or a house for the ducks and geese that are coming in May. Until the snow goes, I can't separate the chickens into breeding clutches, and it's too early to start seeding the pastures. So I'm trying to figure out how to treasure these days of utter suspense while winter goes and a war begins. There's never any telling what spring will bring.

[MUSIC: Miles Davis In a Silent Way In a Silent Way Sony (1969)]

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes the Rural Life column for The New York Times. He is a frequent contributor to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Farfina - Farfina “The Pulse of Life” Ellipsis (1992)]

CURWOOD: There are times of great beauty on a coffee farm, writes Isak Dinesen in her novel “Out of Africa”. When the plantation flowered in the beginning of the rains, it was a radiant sight. A cloud of chalk in the mist of the drizzling rain over 600 acres of land.

The coffee blossom has a delicate, slightly bitter scent, like the black thorn blossom. When the field reddened with the ripe berries, all the women and children were called out to pick the coffee off the trees, together with the men. Then the wagons and carts brought it down to the factory near the river.

Coffee-growing is a long job. It does not all come out as you imagine when yourself, young and hopeful in the steaming rain, you carry the boxes of your shining young coffee plants to the nurseries.

Thanks to Heritage Africa, you can travel to Kenya and visit a coffee plantation as picturesque as Dinesen's. Living on Earth is giving away a 15-day trip for two on the ultimate African safari, with visits to several game preserves, including Kruger National Park and the Serengeti. Please go our website, loe.org, for more details about how to win this 15-day trip to see some of Africa's most spectacular sights. That's loe.org.


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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth.

But before we go, a pause in the late morning along a large lake where a light wind provides the pulse for this recording of small waves against the shore. From Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts, this is Jonathan Storm's Lakeside Rhapsody.


[Earth Ear “Lakeside Rhpasody” Dreams of Gaia Earth Ear Records (1999)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by The World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at loe.org. Our staff includes Cynthia Graber and Jennifer Chu, along with Tom Simon, Jessica Penney, Al Avery, Susan Shepherd, and Liz Lempert.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Katherine Lemcke, Jenny Cutraro, and Nathan Marcy. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental Sound Art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our technical director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth.

I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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