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Dan Egan Discusses the Past, Present and Future of the Great Lakes

  • Journalist and Author Dan Egan, speaks about his research on the evironmental conditions of the great lakes during a conversation with Vice President of Marketing and Communications Emily Morris, June 26, 2019 at the Amp. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Inthe seemingly clear waters of the five Great Lakes, Dan Egan proved that looks can be deceiving.

Utilizing a combination of journalism, history and science, Egan painted a portrait of one of America’s most pressing ecological catastrophes, while outlining the ways to preserve the lakes for generations to come.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of The Death and Life of The Great Lakes, Egan discussed the past and future of the lakes in a conversation with Emily Morris, Chautauqua’s vice president of marketing and communications and chief brand officer, Wednesday in the Amphitheater, continuing Week One’s theme “Moments That Changed the World.” This lecture also served as the first Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Author Presentation of the summer.

In 1991, Egan started his newspaper reporting career in Idaho. Without any formal training in journalism, he said he felt “thrown” into the profession.

“As it happened, I was thrown into it in a place that had a lot of ecological issues that were really national issues at the time,” Egan said.

Reporting in central Idaho, the ecological issues he wrote about included topics such as salmon restoration and grizzly bear recovery.

“These were things that I wasn’t trained to do but I was immediately drawn to,” he said. “Not just the biology, but the tension between human wants and needs and these critters —humans and nature.”

Egan spent the next 10 years in Idaho and Utah covering various natural resource issues. In 2002, he moved to Wisconsin and started reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He was hired as a “super-general-assignment feature writer,” meaning he could write long-form pieces on any subject. Egan found he was immediately drawn to the Great Lakes.

“I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I had been out west for a decade, literally in the desert, and then you come back and you see a body of water the size of what you see with the Chautauqua Lake out there, let alone Lake Michigan,” he said. “So, I was just sucked in to do stories, whether it was about ecological history of the waves, or the economy, or features about people who live on the lakes and have lived on the lakes for generations.”

About a year later, his managing editor suggested he turn the Great Lakes into a beat. Egan agreed.

“What followed was another 10 years of Great Lakes reporting,” Egan said. “That is where I got most of the material for this book. A lot of people say, ‘How long did it take you to write the book?’ The honest answer is more than 10 years because I got a running start with the newspaper.”

The idea to write a book originated in 2011 when he started a master’s and fellowship program at Columbia University in New York City.

“My goal, at the time, was just to take a break from the daily newspaper grind and to show my kids a little bit more of the world than suburban Milwaukee,” he said. “I thought it would be a time to recharge, and it was a time to be drained. It was a very intense program.”

Part of the program included a book-writing seminar where students had to put a book proposal together. Egan felt his reports over the years “stacked up like chapters,” making him more than prepared for the assignment.

“At this point, I wasn’t excited about the idea that I had a book-writing seminar and writing a book proposal, and that maybe someday this would become a book,” he said. “I was just trying to pass the class.”

Even if granted the time to complete such a large project, Egan said he felt too detached from the information to believe it would make any impact. 

“I got numb to all of this material that I had been reporting because I got so close to it, and I was writing for Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites,” he said. “I had an assumption that a lot of people understood some of the basic history of the Great Lakes.”

Egan found that assumption to be untrue when his peers at Columbia were shocked by the stories he told of the lakes’ decline. While that response was encouraging, he still took a regional approach to the book in his proposal, an approach agents told him wouldn’t be enough. 

“It was really pressed upon me that I was writing too regional and that this is a national story,” Egan said. “I didn’t really believe them, but I do now because here I am.”

The story in his book starts by explaining why the five Great Lakes were originally isolated from the rest of the aquatic world.

“That’s because nothing could swim up from the Atlantic,” he said. “First of all, you have the St. Lawrence River, which in its natural state was a heck of a torrent. There was no way stuff was going to migrate up from Montreal. Even if something could make it across Lake Ontario, you’re going to hit a wall, and that wall is Niagara Falls. That’s how these lakes and their fish were isolated on the East Coast.”

In The Death and Life, Egan refers to the East Coast as the “front door.” The “back door” is the subcontinental divide, a ridge that separates the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.

The “death” of the lakes started with the “front door.” Canals were built to link the eastern seaboard to the lakes for “obvious economic reasons,” Egan said.

“But we didn’t just get the cargo coming in that they were expecting, we got species that we weren’t ready for and never even pondered,” he said.

The same thing happened on the western side of the lakes with the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900, a canal designed to reroute Chicago’s sewage away from Lake Michigan because it was infiltrating drinking water supplies.

“It made sense to flush it away from their drinking water intakes in Lake Michigan and put it into the Mississippi River basin, but that created a corridor, too, for all manner of species to come into the lakes,” he said. “So, we had this pristine, well-functioning, exquisitely balanced system, that got shredded in a matter of decades.”

The first thing Egan said “did a number on the lakes” was sea lamprey, a parasitic lamprey native to the Eastern Hemisphere. Egan believes the lamprey entered the lakes through the Erie or Welland Canal.

“The lamprey, they’re fish, but they look like a snake or an eel, and they’re hundreds of millions of years old,” he said. “They are good at what they do, and what they do is they suck the life out of big fish, and so when these canals opened, the lampreys slithered in and they just did a number on the lake trout.”

At the time, lake trout were the “wolves” of the lakes. 

“They controlled the flow of energy in the system,” he said. “In a matter of decades, they knocked it out and with no wolf in control, everything underneath it exploded.”

Behind the lamprey came an invasion of alewives and ocean herrings. Egan said at one point, the alewives made up 90% of the fish in Lake Michigan. However, they began dying at an alarming rate.

“They were dying because they weren’t natural born, freshwater species,” he said. “They spent some of their life in freshwater, but most of it was out in the ocean. So, their kidneys were constantly in distress, which made them vulnerable to all manners of die-offs and they were dying by the billions.”

To start fixing the disrupted balance, Egan said scientists developed “lampricide,” a poison that killed only lamprey.

“We started dosing the streams with lampricide and we knocked out the lamprey,” he said. “It’s a program that’s still going on today and it costs about $25 million a year, and it’s been going on since the 1950s, so you’re looking at something up into the billions of dollars that this has cost. Not to eradicate it, but to control it.”

Once the lampreys were taken care of, scientists needed to find something to eat the alewives because the lake trout were almost gone. Though the alewife population in the Great Lakes experienced die-offs, those die-off events happened seasonally; thus alewives were still an ongoing issue for lake trout.

“We could have brought back lake trout exclusively to the Great Lakes, but there was this idea that we could bring in something sexier, something more fun,” he said.

Pacific coho, a type of salmon, was brought in to try to restore the balance, but scientists were skeptical that the new fish would survive. Although they did, Egan calls this victory an “artificial balance” because canals were still allowing invasions.

However, the second round of invasions was not caused by fish swimming in, but rather by organisms that stuck to boats sailing up the Welland Canal.

Egan said this type of invasion was prevalent in the St. Lawrence Seaway, a series of canals in Canada and the United States, that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.

“On a map, it made a lot of sense, but nobody was pondering what this could mean to open it to, not just barges coming in, but big ocean freighters,” Egan said. “These freighters need balance water, which helps them sail safely, but that water isn’t dead weight, it’s anything but.”

Since the seaway opened in 1959, that “dead weight” has added more than 60 non-native species. According to Egan, quagga mussels did the most damage out of all of them.

“They are remarkable,” he said. “They are only the size of a fingernail, but you can’t think of them as one organism, you have to think of them as cancer cells in a bloodstream, it’s part of a larger, little organism. By large, I mean the bottom of Lake Michigan is almost 100% covered with these mussels, clustering in densities of 100,000 per square meter. Each one of them can filter a liter of water a day, so they are literally sucking the life out of the lakes.”

Because the quagga mussels filter-feed so much plankton, which exist near the bottom of the food chain, the food web of the lakes was changed.

Even with restoration efforts, Egan said the opening of the “front and back doors” permanently altered the lakes.

“The doors that we opened with the best of intentions — they were good ideas at the time, but a good idea for this time is to close them,” he said. “And they can be closed. We have technologies that we didn’t have in 1959 that we are not fully using.”

According to Egan, the suffering these issues cause reaches far beyond the U.S. and Canadian residents inside the basin.

“It is because these doors, particularly the East Coast, the front door, is really a door to the continent,” he said. “You would not have zebra mussels here if you did not have boats sailing on the St. Lawrence Seaway from the other side of the ocean. They can’t swim, they needed a ride, and so we open these doors and we don’t just suffer on the shores of the Great Lakes, we suffer across the country.”

Egan recognizes that although the lakes will never be what they were, the future isn’t “all doom and gloom.” It’s fragile, but a new balance is returning to the lakes. To continue fostering the new order among species, Egan said people have to find a way to limit entry points into the lakes.

No legislative action has been taken to work toward limiting access into the waters, but according to Egan, that wouldn’t make the necessary difference. Instead, the future of the lakes depends on individual action.

“This isn’t going to happen with one magic signature,” he said. “The water isn’t going to take care of itself, and it’s easy to say that you value freshwater, but you have to get educated about it and then you have to be committed to doing something to protect it. The business interests are interested in their business, as they should be, but the public should be interested in the public’s resource. These lakes don’t belong to the farms, or to the shippers. They belong to everybody.”
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The author Jamie Landers

Jamie Landers is a rising junior and journalism major at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix. She is excited to be spending her second summer at Chautauqua covering the 10:45 a.m. Lecture Series. Hailed as the DIY queen, she spends her off-seasons working at Michaels. You can find her on Twitter or front and center at the Amp.