The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan. W.W. Norton, 2017.

The five Great Lakes – Erie, Ontario, Huron, Michigan, and Superior – and various attached bodies of water – contain 20% of the world’s supply of surface fresh water. Their “path to the sea”, the Atlantic Ocean, is interrupted by the dramatic difference in elevation between lakes Erie and Ontario, hence Niagara Falls. As some would have it, the Great Lakes constitute a fourth coast, making inland cities such as Cleveland and Chicago ports.

In the last century the Great Lakes were connected to the Mississippi River basin by the dredging of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the reversal of the Chicago River’s flow out of Lake Michigan rather than into it. Chicago found this solution to its untreated wastewater at the time being dumped into Lake Michigan and fouling the City’s waterfront. Dan Egan points out that this restructuring was a breach of what he calls a “sub-continental divide,” a range of hills in Illinois and Indiana that had separated the Great Lakes watershed from the huge area drained by the Mississippi.

The Erie Canal between Albany and Buffalo, which opened in 1825, was an early effort to use the water resources of the Great Lakes for transportation. The canal never lived up to expectations; the railroads came soon after the Canal’s opening paralleling the waterway and providing it with unbeatable competition.

More recently the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a joint Canadian-US project, allows ocean-going freighters to transport goods to ports on the Great Lakes. Opened in 1959, the Seaway has been widened several times in order to accommodate the increasing size of the freighters. (The St. Lawrence Seaway does, however, have an ice problem in the winter months.)

For years the heavy industry of the Midwestern States used the Lakes as a dumping ground for their wastes, augmenting the Great Lakes’ transportation function. The Clean Water Act has been a major force in cleaning up much of this industrial waste, but the ships that transport cargoes to and from this “Fourth Coast” to the Atlantic continue to pollute the Great Lakes.

These ships frequently dump their ballast tanks in the less turbulent waters of the Great Lakes after their Atlantic crossing. This ballast contains saltwater mussels that can survive in freshwater and have no predators in the Great Lakes. Predators have been introduced to “manage” these mussel populations, but that hasn’t solved another problem: the various species that hitch-hike into the Lakes on ships’ hulls. Egan proposes that many of the troubles that the Great Lakes are facing could be partially solved by railroad transport. The ships with cargo for the US Midwest could be downloaded at the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia and sent across country by railroad.

Much of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is about their unique flora and fauna and how to create a fish population that isn’t overwhelmed by both the pollution problem and potential predators. The Lakes will have to be managed but for whom? Probably commercial fisheries will never survive, and the management of the Great Lakes will benefit sports fishers or “anglers” as Egan calls them. Whatever the choice made, the fish populations will originate in hatcheries.

On to other threats to the Lakes. Phosphorus has become a menace to all bodies of water in the US and Canada. Applied to fields of corn and soy beans to boost production, it also promotes algae production which can blanket huge areas of the Great Lakes, harming “native” plant and animal species.

If a lake’s water is used within the lake’s watershed, it cycles back to the lake and hence is not diminishing the resource. But users outside the watershed are looking to grab a drink. Pipelines carry off water that never gets returned to the watershed. That has been the fate of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and, closer to home, the Ogallala Aquifer underlying the Great Plains. Large-scale extracting of their water for agricultural uses outside the watershed has depleted this fresh water source. And it is beginning to happen to the Great Lakes. Fresh water, not oil, will be our future most precious resource, Egan argues.

Proper management could be at least a partial answer. But part of the problem with the “management” response is that there are two provinces – Ontario and Quebe -, and six states – Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and New York – whose policies have to be coordinated. Plus a number of major municipalities. Good luck at getting any coherent, joint policy out of this diversity, especially when they are dividing up a scarce resource.

Dan Egan’s book was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.



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