The Great Lakes are sicker than we think

2017-03-10T13:04:23+00:00 March 9th, 2017|

By Matt Stansberry

In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan makes the case that the inland seas of the Rust Belt are some of the clearest water on the planet. But our lakes are less healthy and more fragile than any of us might imagine.

The lakes are home to over 186 non-native species which are reshaping the ecosystems in ways we are just now beginning to understand. The problems we face today are far more challenging than the pollution problems in previous decades. These pollutants breed.

The decline of the Great Lakes due to invasive species is insidious. What we’ve lost, and could still lose feels distant, undefinable. And yet, trillions upon trillions of zebra and quagga mussels are sucking the life out of the lake as we speak, restructuring the very food webs undergirding our systems. Poisonous bacterial outbreaks are an annual occurrence. And a virus scientists refer to as “fish ebola” is ravaging the fisheries.

In this book, Egan translates abstract concepts into visceral, emotional examples. He provides context. How big is the problem? How bad could it get?

Almost every other page of the review copy of this book is dog-eared, tabbed to go back and refer to later, something I wanted to remember, to think about, to write down.

I felt like I knew a subject, and then something like this book comes along.

How will our lakes adapt to climate change and potential future water scarcity across the country? What is the risk of new invasive species reshaping and ravaging our unique ecosystems – and at what cost to not just our region but the nation?

I spoke with the author Dan Egan about these issues in the interview below:

Do the people who live in this region understand or appreciate the Great Lakes?

Egan: Yes and no. A lot of us spend time in self-selected circles. In my case, it’s people who care about the lakes –biologists, reporters and conservationists. But too many people lack what I’d call Great Lakes literacy, even people who live within four or five blocks of the lake. I suffered from it too, until I started working at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Nobody says “I don’t like the Great Lakes.” But few people understand how vulnerable they are or how they work, or don’t work.

Do you notice a difference in appreciation between the various locations along the lakes?

Egan: I wish I had a good answer for that. I haven’t been exposed to enough people in Chicago, Cleveland or Buffalo to get a sense of what their relationship is with the lake.

Having said that, I went to northern Michigan in July to cover a pipeline story on the Mackinac Straits. There is a lot of Great Lakes pride in Michigan. It’s the Great Lakes state. It’s on the design of the license plates.  People have bumper stickers. People up there are engaged. People up there realize how tied they are to the health of these lakes economically. Traverse City and the Upper Peninsula have a real appreciation for where they are and what’s around them. I can’t say the same thing about Milwaukee.

What was your childhood experience on the Great Lakes?

Egan: I was born in Green Bay in 1967, so my childhood memories are of the Fox River was in the mid to late-1970s. There was no civic pride in that watershed. North of the city, northern Green Bay, the water was clean. But down in Green Bay you got in trouble for being down in the river. It was like playing at the dump. I remember picking up nuggets of sulfur from the riverbanks with my brothers and lighting it on fire and it would ooze and flow like a lava stink bomb. It was like nature’s bounty! We had found this low impact firework. I think we learned later it was a pollutant from the pulp making process.

I grew up in Green Bay, and couldn’t wait to get out. I started working at newspapers out west, twelve years in Idaho and Utah. I moved back to Wisconsin in 2002. There’s no better way to get an appreciation for the lakes than to live in the desert for a decade.

Things seem visibly better now, but your book paints a different picture. 

Egan: This book is really about the Great Lakes, post-Cuyahoga. We think we solved the problems — that we live in harmony or truce with the lakes — but we haven’t solved the biggest challenges. In some ways, these problems are more dangerous because people are more complacent.

I remember I did a story 4-5 years ago near Evanston, on the North Branch of the Chicago River. I visited a big crew practice area, and they were rowing in shit. There were kids that had had health issues. I remember there was a kid who was a promising crew athlete who couldn’t participate because of her immune system – she couldn’t afford to get a splash of that stuff in her eye.

I have four kids between eight and fifteen years old. We live a couple blocks from Lake Michigan. I want them to think of the lake as theirs, as something to enjoy, and take care of. It sucks when all of the sudden the lake is so dirty, people can’t be in it.

One of my friends is a microbiologist, and I was asking her if it was OK if my kids swam at the beach near my house. There’s an outfall that had had some issues. She said, “After it rains stay away for a day or two. But what you should really stay away from are those hotel hot tubs.”

We’ve known about these kinds of problems for decades. You can plug a pipe or shut down a smoke stack. What happens when the pollutant breeds? All it takes is one new addition of invasive species, and then there will be a cascade of trouble we can’t predict.

Things have gotten better. It’s undeniably a great thing when native species in Lake Huron are thriving on a goby diet, which are based on a mussel diet. Maybe we can get back to a self-sustaining system that’s in balance and doesn’t need chronic tending.

How do the environmental issues you covered out west relate to what you’re doing here?

Egan: When I worked at the Idaho Mountain Express, I would go up into the Sawtooth Mountains to Redfish Lake. There was a specific species of Sockeye salmon that would travel 900 miles inland to spawn. The year I started covering it, 1992 one fish came back. They called him Lonesome Larry. I think he’s stuffed in the governor’s office or something.

I don’t have a science background at all. But it was my job to cover this stuff and it left an impression on me. I looked at the last fish of a species and thought “Oh my god, this is as dramatic as it gets.”

Ten years later, 2002, I bring my daughter who’s fifteen now, down to the Milwaukee lakefront and we’re walking along a pier, and guys were fishing for salmon. I vaguely knew the salmon were there, but I didn’t know it was this non-stop fish farm. I look down, and there are fish milling around, waiting for something to happen. Some of the salmon were finning their way up boat ramps in the urban marina.

They’d been planted in the harbor, and they can’t reproduce down here. So these things were at a dead end at the boat ramp. That just blew me away.

Your employer has made a massive investment in telling these stories. How does a book like this get written?

Egan: This material in the book originally appeared in the Journal Sentinel. My boss is a big fisherman. He was willing to dedicate space to the topic in the paper, and he told me to tell the story as if nobody knows it.

And I was the perfect person to do it, because I didn’t know anything about it. Because of my lack of technical background, I think it makes it easier to me to make it accessible to an average person. I just try to tell stories, and this stuff doesn’t always lend itself to easy story telling.

These lakes touch millions of people and the issues in Milwaukee are very similar to Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, or Duluth. We’re all on the same water body.

Our paper was just phenomenal with their support. It was just luck that I went to a paper that recognized deep dive journalism sells as much as crime.

Under the this current congress and president, we’ve already seen plans to cut spending on Great Lakes Restoration, and stalling on addressing the Asian Carp issue. Are we sliding toward trouble here?

Egan: Who knows? I think there’s an emerging ethic or awareness among politicians that we need to leave these lakes better, or at least not make them worse, for our kids. I don’t think this is a Democrat or Republican partisan issue. These are all the battleground states, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. If the lakes get worked over in the next four years, people aren’t going to forget that. Anybody who puts that at risk, does so at their own peril.

Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.

Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.

Find out more about Matt & David’s publications/additional projects on the newly launched Redhorse site: http://redhorsemag.com.

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One Comment

  1. Mark March 10, 2017 at 6:30 am - Reply

    Sic ’em! How about a follow-up listing Great Lakes conservation groups, those doing actual work, their projects for 2017, and any States’ projects that mesh with theirs.

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