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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes 1st Edition
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“Suspenseful, superbly informative, crucial.”
- Louise Erdrich
“Fascinating and brilliant… Egan’s narrative often moves like a thriller.”
- Vicky Albritton and Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Easy to read, offering well-paced, intellectually stimulating arguments, bolstered by well-researched and captivating narratives.”
- Lekelia Danielle Jenkins, Science
“Dan Egan has done more than any other journalist in America to chronicle the decline of this once-great ecosystem.”
- Judges’ citation, Grantham Award of Special Merit for Environmental Beat Reporting
“A compelling chronicle of the many, many (many) man-caused hazards that have threatened the largest source of accessible freshwater in the world.”
- Susan Glaser, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A marvelous work of nonfiction, which tells the story of humanity’s interference with the natural workings of the world’s largest unfrozen freshwater system.”
- Anne Moore, Crain’s Chicago Business
“Important.… Egan’s book serves as a reminder that the ecological universe we inhabit is vastly connected and cannot be easily mended by humility and good intentions.”
- Meghan O’Gieblyn, Boston Review
“Egan’s knowledge, both deep and wide, comes through on every page, and his clear writing turns what could be confusing or tedious material into a riveting story.”
- Margaret Quamme, Columbus Dispatch
“Brings the Great Lakes’ decline―and moments of rebirth―to life.… Firsthand tales from the people directly involved in the Great Lakes’ unfolding ecological drama drive Egan’s brisk narrative forward.”
- Danielle S. Furlich, Nature Conservancy magazine
“A literary clarion call.… Egan’s narrative reflects a nuanced understanding of history and science, which is matched by his keen perceptions about public policy.”
- National Book Review
About the Author
Dan Egan is a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a senior water policy fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's School of Freshwater Sciences. He has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and he has won the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award, John B. Oakes Award, AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award, and J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. A graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, he lives in Milwaukee with his wife and children.
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Mr. Egan’s research is meticulous and comprehensive. His writing is easy to read and understand. He is able to make complex concepts understandable. He has included all of the major invasive species infestations that have affected the Great Lakes and other major bodies of water, such as the Mississippi River and Lake Meade in Nevada. He describes the failed efforts to prevent Zebra and Quagga Mussels from invading Lake Powell in Utah, and the likely-to-fail efforts to prevent the same invasion of the Columbia River Basin. He describes many of the various invaders: Sea Lamprey, Alewife, Zebra and Quagga Mussel, Asian Carp, Round Goby, Spiny Water Flea, and several others, along with several species of invasive plants.
He tells us how it all happened, and how our institutions of government have failed so utterly to protect us from the ravages of these invasions. It all began with the completion of the Erie Canal between Albany, New York, on the Hudson River, with Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie, in 1825. This canal allowed species from the Atlantic Ocean to gain access to the great lakes, but not in any great number that was observed. The Welland Canal, completed in 1829, added another access route for invasive species. Designed to allow ships to bypass Niagara Falls, it connects Lakes Erie and Ontario. Built and managed by Canada, it provided another avenue into the upper Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean. But it was the St. Lawrence Seaway, completed in 1969, that drove the final nail into the coffin of the Great Lakes. Ocean-going freighters (called “salties” by locals) were able to enter the lakes all the way to America’s heartland: Duluth, Minnesota on the western tip of Lake Superior. These ships must carry “ballast” in order to maintain their stability under differing load conditions, and the most efficient ballast is water. All of these ships have multiple large ballast tanks that are pumped full of water and emptied when needed. Water ballast from places like the Caspian and Black Seas, and a multitude of other places, has been routinely dumped into Great Lakes harbors for almost five decades. With that water came the invasive species that now inhabit the Great Lakes and have destroyed a great fishery of their native fish.
Egan describes the “front door” and the “back door” to the Great Lakes. The front door consists of the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal, and the St. Lawrence Seaway. The back door consists of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that connects the Chicago River and the Des Plains River that flows into the Illinois River, and eventually into the Mississippi River. Built originally as a drain for Chicago’s sewage that had been flowing into Lake Michigan, it opened in 1900, and it reversed the flow of the Chicago River. This, then became another route of access between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin. Built and controlled by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Corps’ commanding generals have steadfastly refused to implement any effective measures to halt the spread of Asian Carp from the river system to the Great Lakes. Its priority has been shipping and commerce — not the health of the Great Lakes. This is also true for the Welland Canal and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
I did not find many inconsistencies or editing errors in the book. One exception was on page #94, where the author describes how the introduction of Coho salmon into Lake Michigan “would trigger one of the greatest spikes in outdoor motor sales in industry history.” I’m not sure what an outdoor motor is. Perhaps the author meant outboard motor . . . Also, in his fifth chapter, Mr. Egan asserts that the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was the back door to the Great Lakes, and he implies that it is/was the only back door. I believe that the first actual back door was the canal between the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers at Portage, Wisconsin. By the late 1840s, a waterway that allowed the passage of canoes between the two rivers was in operation, and by 1876 the Army Corps of Engineers had completed a canal that was suitable for shipping at 75 feet wide, 2.5 miles long, and 7 feet deep. It had a set of locks at both ends, and a current flowed from the Wisconsin to the Fox River. Certainly, if ships and canoes could travel between the Wisconsin River (which empties into the Mississippi River) and the Fox River (which empties into Green Bay on Lake Michigan), then fish could do the same. The Chicago Canal might be the biggest back door threat to the Great Lakes, but it wasn’t the first. I am surprised that an author who has spent as much of his life in Wisconsin as Mr. Egan has, either was not aware of this bit of history, or chose not to include it in his otherwise very comprehensive book.
I liked this book, and I think you will, too. It is chock full of a portion of our country’s history that most Americans are unaware of, but should be. Our country’s EPA and Corps of Engineers have still not moved aggressively enough to protect our Great Lakes, perhaps the most valuable asset in the world, and we should be worried about that. Water will soon be more valuable than oil.
The most famous invasive would be the sea lamprey, which has decimated most of what was left of the native fishery (based on whitefish, lake trout and other fish). Egan chronicles how the Welland Canal, the Erie Canal and the St Lawrence Seaway have been awful in their impact, of ships from abroad emptying ballast in the Lakes and with it, dangerous invasives (he argues we have not been effective in prevention and that the trade is so small that simply requiring cargo be transferred to trains would be worth it). The lamprey is now within reasonable control, a fascinating story.
Then comes the alewife invasion, growing to astronomical numbers, and the effort to stock the Lakes with Coho and Chinook salmon, turning a commercial fishery, what was left of it, into a sport fishery. That prospered and then largely collapsed. The is the quagga and zebra mussel invasion, which exist in prodigious numbers. They filter water making it more clear than it has been in decades, but also filter out most of the plankton at the bottom of the food chain, altering the ecology all the way up. The mussels can clog pipes, intakes to water and power plants, and are expanding west, now affecting many rivers and reservoirs (Lake Mead, Lake Powell).
Then there are the carp--grass carp, fathead carp and others--headed for the Lakes. Their future is possibly to become toe world's largest carp pond. Egan's description of how the infestation started and has spread is the best I have read about it anywhere, and explains why a fish few people take seriously really is a serious threat. As noted above, there's a good section on people outside the Lakes area greedily eyeing all that water; at this time there's a Lakes state compact (of the Lakes states and Canadian provinces) aimed at preventing that, but the compact may not really be constitutional.
The book somehow manages to end with some optimism. He notes that Lake Erie empties about every 2.5 years (that is, water flows in and out and takes that long to completely cycle), so there is the possibility of regeneration. There is also some evidence of fast evolution of native species accommodating the huge changes in the ecosystem brought by the mussels and other invasives.