Video: 'Science guy' on polluted water

updated 9/12/2005 12:23:04 PM ET 2005-09-12T16:23:04

Sewage, household chemicals, lead, pesticide.  Those are just some of the elements that can be found in the floodwaters stagnating in New Orleans.  Right now, that dangerous water is being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain at the rate of two million gallons a minute.  Of course, there are concerns that the water can harm the lake and hurt the environment for years to come. 

To help understand some of the possible consequences of that pumping, on MSNBC Live, Alison Stewart welcomed television host Bill Nye, “The Science Guy.”

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the “Launch” button to the right.

ALISON STEWART: So let’s talk about this lovely subject of E-coli.  With elevated levels found in the water, they’re likely due to this sewage.  What risks does it pose specifically to people as well as the environment and does it thrive in the water?

BILL NYE, ‘THE SCIENCE GUY:’ E-coli are bacteria that live in your gut down low.  They’re fine when they’re down low but when they get up high; you’re all in trouble.  So we have this uneasy relationship with these things.  When they get in the sewage of course, they make you very sick. There’s no question that when you smell stuff that’s rotting, you feel bad because if you were to ingest it, you would get sick so our bodies are set up to reject it.  So we’re going to fill the lake up with this stuff and the reason we’re doing that is because there’s no place else to put this water.

STEWART:  That’s interesting.  The gentleman from the EPA said it was a difficult decision to pump into Lake Pontchartrain.

NYE:  That’s it.  That’s really the best we can do right now.  It’s just too bad.  In plumbing, you can ask any plumber and he or she will tell you that stuff flows down hill and so this is going to eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico one way or another.  What we want to do is somehow manage that.  The way to do it is to control the rate as best we can.  The thing is, when you get all this bacteria into a big lake, they’re going to take up all the oxygen.  That oxygen that nurtures fish and wildlife there is going to be depleted and it’s going to affect the entire ecosystem- not just for the weekend but for months, maybe years and years.  We don’t really have a good other option.

STEWART:  Many scientists believe when they go about rebuilding the city, they’re advocating investing into the wetlands.  Explain why that would be a good idea.

NYE:  Well, wetlands do three things.  First of all, they’re home to wildlife.  Half of the terrestrial species that you’re familiar with: birds, fish and so on.  Birds and mammals like badgers and beavers and stuff depend on the wetlands.  If you don’t live in a wetland, you depend on things that live in wetlands.   The second thing that wetlands do is they filter the water.  Mechanically, the water flows through the soil of wetlands and particles are held back.  But there’s also these fantastic bacteria and other organisms that reside in wetlands that help break down pollution. 

The third thing that wetlands do is that they absorb floods.  They’re enormous sponges and the soil is often referred to as hydric soil.  You can see it under the microscope.  The particles of soil are barely touching each other.  They’re held apart by water and so when we pave over wetlands and drain wetlands, we lose this tremendous capability to soak up floods.  There’s an old expression- “you want to drain the swamp” but when you drain the swamp, you wind up with this very costly problem of flood control.  So in a place like New Orleans, it’s been speculated in the last 30 years or so as the mechanisms of wetlands have become more understood that you could actually save money by leaving wetlands there instead of developing them. 

The land looks to be a very valuable place where everybody wants to live by the coast but if you were to preserve wetlands, in general it is believed nowadays that you would save money in flood control.

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