When the gales of early winter whip up the waters of the Great Lakes, rock formations and sand beaches take a beating and often give way to the force of these majestic water bodies. We’ve seen recent headlines announcing the fall of the “sea stack” on Minnesota’s north shore as a winter storm reduced this often photographed landmark to a pile of rocks below the waves. Similarly, lake-shore flood warnings have become common in places like Green Bay, Milwaukee and Chicago as they deal with record water levels on Lake Michigan.
Just beneath the surface lies a more insidious threat to the life of the Great Lakes which was largely created as a result of shipping and commercial fishing over many decades. Dan Egan, a news reporter and author has been covering the great lakes as “his beat” for almost 20 years. He is the author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. As Egan notes in his book, these threats affect more than 20 percent of all the freshwater in the world which is contained within the five great lakes.
For anyone who grew up on or near one of the Great Lakes, it’s hard to imagine life without the majestic blue expanse of these beautiful water bodies. Lake Michigan contains miles of sand beaches that rival the coast of Florida. Lake Superior holds vast amounts of wilderness on both sides of the border with Canada. Even Lake Erie has made a remarkable come back from the days when the tributary Cuyahoga River famously caught fire in 1969. In a bit of irony, the fire helped give a boost to passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Egan’s book recounts the early days of commercial fishing, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the invasive species that were unleashed with the dumping of ballast water from ocean going vessels. According to Egan, “Zebra mussels have gobbled up the plankton so critical to the food chain in Lake Michigan, resulting in a crash of many of the species of fish that have supplied stores and restaurants along the lake for decades.”
Threats to these freshwater lakes abound, said Egan. “We have water quality threats tied to invasive species, which itself is a form of pollution. Toledo lost its drinking water supply back in 2014 due to an outbreak of toxic algae. The mussels aren’t toxic but they really exacerbated the algae bloom since they eat everything in the water column except the toxic algae.” Egan said Toledo officials issued a drinking water ban, “and you couldn’t boil your way out of it because that would just concentrate the toxin.” In a few days, the city restored the drinking water supply, but it was a clear warning that threats to this critical resource exist even for people living along the largest supply of freshwater in the world.
Another big threat is the Asian Carp held at bay in the Chicago River by an electronic fence submerged in the river. Egan said other places are considering genetic engineering to deal with similar threats. In Tasmania for instance, scientists have considered altering the genes of invasive species to cut off the species in a generation or two. Still, Egan isn’t sure genetic engineering is the right answer. “It’s a frightening idea that you would genetically manipulate these fish so they couldn’t produce female offspring. If this book is about anything, it’s about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions that didn’t turn out the way people had planned.”
As a reporter, Egan sees his role as a story teller, telling a story of potential environmental disaster and perhaps some practical ways to mitigate the worst of the threat. “These lakes are still ‘great’ literally, and they could get a lot worse. So we need to appreciate what we have and we need to do what we can learn from our past mistakes.”
Dan Egan is on leave from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to write his second book which takes on the use and overuse of phosphorus in commercial farming operations. According to Egan, “It’s a critical question for our food security.” He also continues to serve as a fellow for the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His writing makes the science of freshwater protection accessible for a wide range of readers and his commitment to protection of this unique resource is unquestionably the driving force of his career.
Bill Griffith practices land use, real estate and municipal law at Larkin Hoffman. He represents Mall of America and the City of Columbus, Minnesota, as well as other owners, managers and developers of real estate. He has a special interest in sustainable solutions to land use and development challenges.