The Death And Life Of The Great Lakes

Keeping the lakes alive by shutting the doors

Published in the June 2018 Issue September 2020 Feature Vanessa Oler

“I was originally hired as a feature writer, but I’d just spent all this time out West, where water is so scarce. To stand on the shore of a Great Lake brought a whole new level of appreciation. So I just started writing stories about them, and a year or two into this, the Great Lakes became my beat.”

Dan Egan is a reporter in the purest form of the word. Not the modern tweet-driven kind, but the pen-in-hand, walking the streets of his beat, man-on-the-ground kind. When we sat down to speak about his new book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, he was on a public bus in Milwaukee, headed to the University of Wisconsin where he keeps a desk adjacent to experts in the scientific fields he covers.

Dan openly admits he has no background in the hard sciences of ecology and marine biology, and that is the singular saving grace of his book. Great Lakes is packed with information, but Dan’s background as a storyteller salvages this book from the dusty piles of science-laden conservationist books. Every page has a quote from a real person whose livelihood has been directly impacted by this cascading ecological crisis.

“I’m still a full-time beat reporter, and my beat is the Great Lakes,” Dan says. “As far as I know, mine is the only newspaper job like that in the U.S. or Canada. That’s just crazy when you realize what an economic and ecological resource these lakes are. We’re not taking the care of the water that it deserves. It’s really not an abstraction that’s going on under the water; it’s affecting people. It’s a crazy ecological story, like nothing else that I’ve ever seen.”

Dan sets the scene for this ecological story and subsequently the structure for Great Lakes with the idea of two doors: a front and a back door to the Great Lakes. These doors were firmly shut for thousands of years, isolating and protecting the freshwater of the lakes from the rest of the world. Then, with two ambitious man-made projects we still utilize daily, the doors were flung open.

The Front Door: The St. Lawrence Seaway                                                                          

While construction to connect channels and locks along the St. Lawrence river officially kicked off in May 1957 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the St. Lawrence was a major thoroughfare from the 1820s onward. However, natural barriers created hydrologic barriers along the way, maintaining the Great Lakes’ isolation. Prior to dredging and taming the mighty St. Lawrence, international freighters were forced to dock in New York, transfer cargo to some other method of transport and return home. This kept international freighters operating in one body of water for the most part, with no way to carry species from one environment into a new one. When completed, however, the Seaway locks allowed a vessel as large as 740 feet long by 78 feet wide to pass directly from the Atlantic Ocean into the Great Lakes.

“The first invaders swam up these man-made canals,” Dan says, “where previously they were isolated from the rest of the world by Niagara Falls. The problem, now, is these ships from abroad carry ballast water to stabilize them at sea, and when they get to the Great Lakes, they exchange that ballast water for cargo. We’re talking millions of gallons here, and when it’s discharged, they also discharge anything they picked up at any port around the world. There are 61 non-native species that have been introduced to the lakes since the Seaway opened in 1959.”

Pause. At this moment you’re thinking, this guy is crazy if he wants to shut down all commercial shipping on the Great Lakes! But, remember, he’s a beat reporter. Dan does his homework and has a vested interest in people who put food on the table because of commercial shipping on the lakes. These are real people to him, facing real challenges.

“Commercial shipping is big business, and it’s important, but the percent of overseas ships coming from abroad — sailing up the St. Lawrence — is tiny. It’s only about five percent of the cargo moved on the Great Lakes, compared to the majority, which is heavy industrial stuff moving from one Great Lakes port to another. Boats called lakers are too big to get out to the ocean and are not the problem.”

Dan proposes the way to close the front door to invasive species is to put a hard stop on overseas ships from entering the Seaway. The shipping industry has taken significant steps to solve this problem, including requiring international freighters to flush ballast tanks mid-ocean.

“But there are so many different stages of life,” he says, “and life is so durable that a salinity shock just isn’t going to kill everything all the time. Since they started doing this in 2006, the pace of invasion has dropped dramatically, but in the last two years, we’ve picked up two new species that have never been detected in the Great Lakes before, and overseas ships are the likely culprit.”

The Back Door: The Chicago Sanitary Canal

Until 1900 and the engineering mind of Ellis Chesborough, the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan. However, the city’s unprecedented growth and introduction of large slaughterhouses sent so much excrement downstream into the fresh waters of Lake Michigan, that a cholera epidemic killed six percent of the city’s population. Something had to change.

Chesborough pitched a series of projects that eventually lead to reversing the flow of the Chicago River entirely. Now, instead of contaminating their own fresh water supply, Chicagoans sent the problem downstream into the Mississippi watershed. Sanitary treatment facilities and their technology have nearly rendered the original problem obsolete. The new problem, though, is any species introduced to the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico on up has free passage into Lake Michigan.

As a key component to the Great Loop, the south-flowing Chicago River is a major recreational passageway. Dan isn’t suggesting we reverse the Chicago River back to its original flow. Once humans get involved, he relates, this idea of a pristine wilderness is unrealistic. His challenge is simply one of creativity.

“We need to plug this door to invasions,” says Dan, “but that doesn’t mean we need to stop boat traffic. There are plenty of options. In Scotland, there’s this incredibly elegant Ferris wheel that scoops up huge boats and lifts them over a hydrologic divide. They’re looking to do this on Lake Champlain to the Hudson River and stop all the trouble that could be lurking in the Hudson River. There isn’t a ton of commercial traffic, so that would be an easy place to start implementing true hydrologic separation.”

“There is the ability to shut these doors biologically and keep both commercial and recreational boat traffic flowing, much in the way it has in the past. It’ll take some money and some creative thought, but it can be done.”

What Can Recreational Boaters Do?

“If you have a Great Lakes-worthy boat, you have an obligation to know how to operate that boat but also to understand the environment in which you’re operating. Water is more mysterious than a forest because you just can’t see what’s going on. Every boater needs to have a baseline of Great Lakes literacy, an understanding of the ecology under the water and what could happen to it.”

As a boater himself, Dan’s frustration rose one weekend he promised to take his kids out to the lake. Swimsuits on and ready for a day of fun, his kids raced toward the beach only to find the worst kind of sign. Beach closed. He stood, crestfallen on the shore, realizing his daily beat had not moved the needle enough to guarantee weekends on the water. In some ways, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is the direct answer to his kids that day: What do we do now, dad?

“Recreational boating is big business,” says Dan, “and can have a big sway on future policy decisions. There are people looking out for the health of the lakes, we just need more people doing it. Recreational boaters would be a huge resource in that respect. We need to be up to speed on this issue and should be demanding adequate protections for the lakes that we love.”

For More Information:

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Episode 86: “Reversal of Fortune”

99 Percent Invisible

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