Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

Dan Egan's book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes was distressing to read. I know these lakes. I have lived near the Great Lakes for almost 50 years. I grew up along the Niagara River and have lived 40 years in Michigan--including seven years living near Lake Michigan, three years so close I heard the sound of the waves day and night.

I have seen the lakes die and become reborn and die again. I remember in the 1970s when the water at the base of Niagara Falls foamed with brown-yellow froth from pollution. I remember when shallow Lake Erie was declared dead; the wonder of its rebirth; now its waters have become poisonous.

We have wrecked havoc with the beautiful and perfect ecosystem. We have made decisions based on capital gain, without foresight or thought about our actions' impact on the natural balance. We have altered the landscape to serve our need, heedless of the consequences.

We dug canals, opened the Lakes to world-wide shipping, dumped industrial and agricultural waste into their waters. Non-native species, by accident or intent, were brought in and allowed to become established and alter the ecosystem.

And in the big picture we have contributed to a climate change that threatens the Lakes as their waters remain warm and ice free in winter, promoting evaporation and lowering lake levels.

Lake Superior shipwreck of Gale Staples
 near Hurricane River and Au Sable Lighthouse
My husband and son camped in the Upper Peninsula in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They knew the lake levels were dropping. The shipwrecks along the Superior coast between the Hurricane River campground and the Au Sable lighthouse were more exposed every year. The Sitka had been underwater when they first saw it. The next year it was exposed. The cold waters of Lake Superior preserves the shipwrecks; exposure will speed their decay.
Egan's book explains how we got to 'here': a Lake Michigan so devoid of life you can see deep into its waters; a Lake Erie covered in poisonous algae that makes the water undrinkable; lake levels dropping, evaporation increasing. And the whole country itching to get a share of the water. Canada's decisions also impact what happened, or does not happen, to the lakes. Had they closed the 'front door' to allow foreign ships direct access into the Lakes the introduction of alien species would have been stemmed.

The Lakes were a 'closed system', an ecosystem developed and perfected in isolation since the glacial melt created them at the end of the last ice age. In "The Front Door" section Egan explains how the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Welland Canal, and even the Erie Canal opened the door to non-native species. The native Lake Trout were killed off by Sea Lampreys. Alewives found their way into the lakes and flourished, replacing native species, Coho and Chinook Salmon were brought in to feed off the Alewives. The Salmon were chosen over restocking native fish because sportsmen preferred them. For a time the Winter Water Wonderland of Michigan offered some of the best fishing around. Then--the Salmon ate all the Alewives and were left starving.

The next wave of invaders were the Zebra and Quagga Mussels. Inedible to native fish, they flourished in the lakes and quickly covered everything. Literally. Including the inflow pipes that provided drinking water and water for industry. The costs for controlling the mussels is mind boggling.

The second part of the book, "The Back Door," tells how Asian Carp are waiting in the Chicago Canal System to invade Lake Michigan; how mussels were carried from the Great Lakes to invade pristine Western Lakes; and addresses the Toledo Water Crisis, created when the Black Swamp was drained and turned into the lush farmland whose fertilizers are carried into the lake to feed the algae.

In Part Three, "The Future," Egan explains how climate change, the bottling of lake water, and the diversion of the water to 'dry' states will impact the future of the Lakes.

The final chapter addresses ways to move into a sustainable future for the Great Lakes.
My son at Lake Superior near the shipwreck Gale Staples
America already is facing a water crisis as glacial ground water is used up and changing weather patterns bring drought. It is urgent that we address how to protect our most important resource--the Lakes, which comprise 20% of the world's fresh water--before it is truly too late.

Egan's book lays out the history and the problems we have wrought in the past. Can we--will we--preserve and restore the Great Lakes? Our new presidential administration with its ties to business is unfriendly to science. The plan to gut the EPA and defund programs to protect out water will have devastating consequences to our most precious natural resource.

I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Dan Egan
W. W. Norton & Company
Publication March 7, 2017
$27.95 hard cover
ISBN: 978-0-393-24643-8

My Dad boating on Lake St, Clair, Michigan, about 1966

Me, on the Niagara River, about 1956

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