Rescuing the Lakes

Wisconsin journalist pens book about the future of the Great Lakes, what ails them or saves them.
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Photography courtesy of Dan Egan

After spending more than a decade writing about the Great Lakes as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dan Egan realized a book needed to be written from his stories. The result was “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” a look at the environmental disaster facing the Great Lakes if steps aren’t taken to save them.

“Most of the people I’ve talked to like it and say they are surprised how little they actually knew about the lakes they thought they knew so well,” said Egan, whose reporting earned him a 2010 Pulitzer Prize nomination for explanatory writing. “Some people ask me if writing it made me depressed. It didn’t. I find it fascinating, though it is depressing in some ways, as well.

“The lakes are incredibly complicated. We think we can manage them, but we can’t. We should do everything we can to stop the next invasive species from getting into the Great Lakes,” he said.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
Photography courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

His book, which was published in 2017 and has been compared to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” takes readers back to how glaciers created the lakes thousands of years ago and covers the effect of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the Clean Water Act in 1972, global warming, high and low water levels, invasive species and more. Even Dr. Seuss finds his way onto the pages.

Egan explains how invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, enter the lake through contaminated ballast waters, those used to stabilize freighters arriving from outside the Great Lakes when they don’t have full loads. The ballast water is dumped in the Great Lakes before the freighters return home with a full load. Often, it is full of unwanted organisms.

“We have to close the pathways, hopefully, through technology that can protect the lakes from new invasions,” Egan said. “That means adequate ballast water treatment for Seaway boats and, somehow, building a better barrier for the (Asian Carp) species migrating between the lakes and Mississippi River basin. Maybe that will take physical separation. That’s not my call to make.”

More lake activists would help, he added. “If enough people become educated about the issues facing the lake, that can lead to the public demanding actions be taken,” Egan said.

Egan shares poignant stories about people who live, work and play along the lake — like those who take off work when perch come in near Muskegon and the bus that stops at the bait shop on the way to the lake. Egan has his own stories, as well, about spending summers at his grandparents’ lake cottages. He said he hopes his son’s generation will have them, too.

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