Meet Dan Egan, whose book “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” is absolutely riveting. It had me spouting fascinating facts like nothing I’ve read since Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker,” about how planner Robert Moses shaped New York.
I chatted with Egan, a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter who has covered the lakes for a decade, while he looked out from his office onto Lake Michigan.
More Erie Interviews will be published weekly. Conversations has been edited for space and clarity.
So why do the Great Lakes matter, aside from the fact they’re your job?
I think the lakes matter to the region because they make the region what it is. They matter to us economically, culturally, and for me emotionally. I live a few blocks from Lake Michigan, and if it weren’t there I don’t think I’d be living in Milwaukee. Milwaukee wouldn’t be Milwaukee.
They’re a trove of freshwater like nowhere else. Every year these lakes look more and more precious. We’ve got to treat them that way.
Since I moved back to Cleveland in 2007, I feel like more and more people are flocking to Lake Erie. Do you see the same thing? Is there a Great Lakes renaissance?
When I moved here in 2002, our main beach in Milwaukee had no lifeguards and there were way more seagulls than people.
Now there are volleyball tournaments, and on a hot summer day, thousands of people there.
Michigan has a lot of Great Lakes pride. I was just in Traverse City for vacation and just the bumper stickers and the water ethic that has taken hold there is exciting. And I hope it’s spreading.
Maybe it’s because people are thinking more about water. Or maybe it’s because most of the heavy industry is gone.
We know how to take better care of the lakes now. And there’s positive feedback: the more they take care of them, the more appealing they become.
Which lake is in the worst shape?
I guess you’d have to say Lake Erie because of the algae blooms and the dead zones.
It’s the smallest and the most fragile. It’s where the problems tend to pop up. But because it’s the smallest, it’s the most responsive of the lakes.
Residence time (the time it takes for a drop of water to cycle out of the lake and into the Niagara River of Welland Canal) is less than three years. You fix the pollution loading and you get a new lake in a few years.
What’s the biggest problem facing the Great Lakes? Your book focuses on ballast water carried by ocean-going ships that enter the lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway and can carry invasive organisms like zebra and quagga mussels.
Ballast water has been probably the biggest most problematic pollutant unleashed on the lakes. The shipping industry has done a lot in the last decades to kill unwanted hitchhikers. But that door isn’t shut.
There was a new kind of zooplankton announced last week in Lake Erie, the second since November. Take quagga mussels (an invasive species which have replaced zebra mussels, costing water intake plants millions of dollars a year to keep out of pipes). No one had ever heard of them before 2000. For whatever reason, their numbers just exploded.
It’s tempting to think the lakes have seen everything that can be thrown at them, but I think that’s exceedingly naïve. As long as the door is open, that problem will persist.
Do you think people who live and play around the lake know the extent of the problems?
No. Looking out my window at Lake Michigan, it looks spectacular. It looks like the Caribbean, but that’s just deceiving. A healthy lake Michigan would be a brothier green.
This is complicated stuff. News coverage can only address these issues to a certain degree; you can’t really connect all the dots that need to be connected in one story.
About 40 million people live in the Great Lakes basin. I’ll be lucky if 30,000 of them get this book. I hope they’ll at least share what they learn in it.
What else should we know?
Personally I think if you’re going to live here, you have a responsibility to have some kind of Great Lakes literacy. You’ve gotta know what’s going into those lakes so we can continue to maintain and restore them for future generations.