Our fragile Great Lakes


Dan Egan’s “Death and Life of the Great Lakes” is not a post-EPA happily-ever-after fairy tale but a riveting account of new life in the Great Lakes that’s pushing out the old in wicked ways.

And though it addresses a body of water  three hours away by car, its ills are felt 240 miles away here in Burlington.

The Great Lakes are a geographic marvel. Formed from glaciers about 14,000 years ago, they contain more than 20 percent of the Earth’s surface fresh water.

For all but a sliver of their history, Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario were cut off from the rest of the world. That changed in the early 20th century when Chicago rerouted the Chicago River so municipal sewage would flow away from Lake Michigan, from where the city drew its drinking water, toward the Mississippi River via the Sanitary and Shipping Canal.

Considered an engineering marvel at the time, it created what Egan called the Great Lakes’ back door and carved a route for invasive species unimagined 100 years ago. The back door, though, wasn’t nearly as destructive (yet) as the front door, which is how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outdoors writer begins his story: the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959.

Intended as an economic driver, the seaway introduced sea lamprey, zebra mussel and dozens of other invasive species to the lakes via ship ballast tanks from places as far away as the Caspian Sea. The effect has been catastrophic even as seaway usage has declined from a peak of 23.1 tons of cargo shipped per year in the ’70s to fewer than 6 tons in recent years.

The mussels were particularly bad. Since being introduced to the lakes only 30 years ago, they have spread rapidly. Their wickedly sharp shells cover everything and starve native species. The mussels made their way through the Chicago canal to the Mississippi and last year, the Burlington Municipal Waterworks spent $83,000 for a chemical to help keep the mussels from clogging its water intakes, according to Ken Gregory, plant manager.

When picking up the book, I imagined a story of how the lakes were turned around after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland. Actually, the infamous 1969 incident doesn’t pop up in detail until halfway through the book and is addressed in a surprising manner I won’t spoil here.

Battles to fix or improve the lakes are complicated because the nature of the bodies of water change quickly. For instance, Lake Erie, which had been declared dead in the 1970s was revitalized to become a sport fish haven only to see that work undone by spectacular toxic algae blooms earlier this decade.

The problematic zebra mussel is to blame. It actually makes the water clearer but that allows sunlight to penetrate deeper, allowing algae to flourish. Erie is so shallow at Toledo, Ohio, that algae blooms have become a regular, consequential and forecastable health threat.

Fixing the lakes’ ills could be relatively easy, Egan contends. But it would require federal intervention with cooperation of Canada. These days, that’d be difficult, especially when basic science and diplomacy are under siege. Plus there’s the fact stakeholders have been “living with the system that we’ve set up.” Change won’t be easy. The Clean Water Act of 1972 addressed neither freighter ballast nor farm field runoff and Egan points out there’s plenty of finger-pointing that seems impervious to facts.

Dan Egan’s a terrific storyteller. He has a touch local readers will remind them of Mike Sweet. Consider this passage:

“The first hint that the river was dying came when the fish started to float to the surface, their white bellies aglow in the lifting dawn light. One by one they popped into view, the way stars emerge at dusk.”

Egan is describing the Asian carp which, like its cousin the flying silver carp, is migrating up the Mississippi River to the Illinois River, headed seemingly inevitably to Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes.

Egan has a devoted appreciation for Aldo Leopold and wondered what the Burlington-born naturalist would have said had he been observing the Great Lakes instead of the Arizona mountains.

“Had Leopold, who died in 1948, lived long enough to witness the bizarre, utterly unpredictable aftermath of the lamprey invasion beginning in the 1950s, he might have found an equally apt way to convey the notion that sometimes a native predator’s job isn’t merely an essential matter for a functioning ecosystem. It is an existential one.”

It’s not his only Leopold reference.

“The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” should interest river enthusiasts, environmentalists or anyone simply wanting an interesting and compelling story.1280px-Great-Lakes.svg