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Milwaukee Reporter Documents 'The Death and Life of the Great Lakes'


The issues facing the Great Lakes are often referred to in chronological terms. From the cryptosporidium outbreak that affected Milwaukee water in 1993 to the suffocating invasions of - first, zebra mussels, then quagga mussels. Plus the decline of the lake trout and perch population, and the fall in water levels are key problems we face today.

But just as all five Great Lakes are an interconnected system, the problems facing the lakes are interconnected as well. They’re laid out in a comprehensive new book by one of the only reporters covering the lakes full-time - Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, comes out next week.

Egan documents the science, the history and the past, present and imperiled future of the Great Lakes that have changed dramatically since the natural barriers of the Mississippi River and Niagra Falls were circumvented starting in the late 1800s.

The Chicago ship canal (an artificial connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin built in 1900) was one of the key components attributed to the state of water quality and the rate of invasive species, according to Egan. What he calls a "two door problem."

Egan says the front door to invasive species is the St. Lawrence seaway and the back door, the Chicago sanitary and ship canal. "It was a great idea for its time, but now the consequences of re-plumbing the continent in this manner are becoming clear," he says. One of the key threats created by the Chicago canal are the four different species of Asian carp.

Credit W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

"The rate of invasions used to be almost one every six months. It's slowed dramatically, but that door is still open," he adds. "It's still possible for us to get another zebra mussel, or quagga mussel, or who knows what."

As a reporter and an author on the Greak Lakes, one of the challenges Egan faces is trying to accurately convey what's happened to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

"You can't see it from the surface, but that lake is completely different. You could walk almost from Milwaukee to Muskegon on a bed of these clustering mussels at densities up to beyond ten thousand per square meter," he says.

While the lakes have changed dramatically and many threats still loom, Egan says there is still hope if people are proactive and serious about changing the fate of 20 percent of the world’s supply of surface fresh water.

"It is a depressing story - I mean, what we’ve lost is immeasurable. And there’s no sugarcoating that.  But I think, you know, it’s not all doom and gloom," he says.

"The idea in my mind that you can have a self-regulating system, a self-sustaining system is really what our goal should be at this point," adds Egan. "We're never going to get back all the fish species that we lost - they're gone. But we can get a balance that doesn't necessarily require millions of dollars and millions of fish being raised every year and put in the lake to be caught for fun."

Dan Egan will talk about The Death and Life of the Great Lakes next Friday at Boswell Book Company.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.