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The Great Lakes' Environmental Issues Get the Book Treatment

Michigan coined the nickname "The Great Lakes State" not only for being surrounded by four out of the five Great Lakes but also for the ecological, economic and cultural benefits that the lakes provide. Most Michiganders have stories of spending summers splashing along miles of shoreline, fishing for lake trout or just relishing the lakes' majestic views. Author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan, a journalist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentential, understands why Michiganders are so proud to call the Great Lakes home. Like many generations of lake-goers, Egan has watched the Great Lakes change before his eyes. He sought to understand these changes by spending years intensively researching the lakes to write a compelling story unfolding the drastic changes the lakes have undergone, the threats they faced and what the future holds for the Great Lakes. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is a timely, approachable read breaking down the history, science, and personal experiences of the Great Lakes into a cautiously positive story.

The book's first section centers on the manmade seaway that connects the Atlantic to the Great Lakes as one of the pathways that has led to ecological harm. A grand idea in the 1820s, the Erie Canal, Welland Canal and Saint Lawrence Seaway opened the Great Lakes to oceanic vessels carrying much more than their intended cargo. When the seaway opened, species like the alewife and sea lamprey could now swim from the ocean to the Great Lakes where they would come to dominate the ecosystem. Species that couldn’t make the 2,341-mile journey were able to hitch a ride with oceanic vessels traveling to the Great Lakes. Thirty percent of the invasive species in the Great Lakes have been brought in by oceanic vessel’s ballast water tanks, a bilge system that allows them to adjust weight and increase stability.

The second part of the book is aptly titled, "The Front Door." The Great Lakes now contain 186 invasive species, many of which came from the ocean. Ballast water has brought in some of the most infamous invasive species to the Great Lakes including the zebra mussel, quagga mussel, and round goby. Introduction of invasive species has led to noteworthy management practices, one of which includes a decision made by a Michigan Chief of Fisheries who received his doctorate in fisheries biology from Michigan State University, Howard Tanner. When the lake trout population plummeted in the 1960’s due to the sea lamprey feeding on them, the alewife, another invasive species that was a food fish for the lake trout, reached a population that couldn’t withstand itself. Massive die-offs of the alewife caused miles of beaches to be covered feet thick in dead carcasses. In 1966, Tanner fronted the effort to introduce two species of pacific salmon into Lake Michigan, not to specifically address the crisis of dying lake trout and exploding alewives, but to generate the Great Lakes into a sports fisherman’s dream. Two years later, pacific salmon were found in all five of the Great Lakes, alewife die-offs had subsided, and the fishing industry was booming. Tanner’s decision balanced the ecology in the Great Lakes for more than twenty years.

 A series of events led to a plummeting salmon population the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as fisherman were leaving the lakes empty handed. Unknown to the biologists, the salmon population was naturally reproducing so successfully that the lakes were overloaded because hatcheries were still planting a large portion of the population. In addition, the alewife population that the salmon were eating not only had more predators after them but also were struggling to find food themselves since the invasive zebra and quagga mussels were filtering out the plankton. This compounded problem and unbalance currently raises questions of what forage and predator fish, native or introduced, to stock to maintain sustainable Great Lakes fisheries.

The Great Lakes' "back door" is addressed in the second part of the book — the Chicago River. Egan described downtown Chicago as a second “continental divide,” one that separates the Mississippi River Basin from the Great Lakes. In the mid 1800’s this continental divide was essentially removed to allow a connection from the east coast through the Erie Canal, to the Great Lakes and then all the way to the Gulf of Mexico by means of the Mississippi River. This reconstruction of this continental divide through merely digging a ditch in downtown Chicago was described as the "re-plumbing of half of the United States." Like the seaway connecting the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, this re-plumbing brought more unexpected ecological trouble. Behind this second door lies the future invader of the Great Lakes, the Asian carp that have reached Chicago after being introduced in Arkansas by means of the Mississippi River. The Asian carp carry multiple threats with their introduction including; disrupting food availability for native species, removing plankton and algae, and jumping feet out of the water causing physical hazard to lake goers. The success of the electrical barrier that lies 37 miles from Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago Canal is highly debated and many engineers, biologists and policy makers are skeptical. Since the $7 billion fishing industry of the Great Lakes is at stake, Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature have launched a global search for innovative approaches and solutions to prevent the species from entering. Approaches managed under a one-million-dollar budget will be reviewed and, if selected, implemented.

The final third of book discusses about the future threats that face the Great Lakes and the management challenges we are likely to meet in the future. Dan Egan takes a cautiously hopeful approach in Part Three: The Future. Not all threats facing the Great Lakes are ecological as examined previously in the book. The Great Lakes Basin provides a line that divides people who have access to 20% of the worlds surface freshwater from those who do not. People within the basin are entitled to using Great Lakes water for irrigation and drinking water. Fortunately, every county in Michigan is located within the Great Lakes basin and has access to this extensive body of freshwater but there is a threat of access being broadened and water withdrawn from the Great Lakes. Waukesha, Wisconsin is located just outside of the Great Lakes basin and has radium contamination in their previous water source, an aquifer. This has led them to put in a request to receive access to Great Lakes water. Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette opposed the request saying that it threatened Michigan’s finest asset but Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, along with seven other governors of Great Lakes states, approved to give permission to Waukesha to draw water out of the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes have shown to be a fragile ecosystem that needs to be managed for integrity, stability and balance. To halt the threat of future invasions through the Erie Canal oceanic vessels could transfer their cargo to local ships or trains without entering the seaway. Egan explains this simple approach as needing no new technological devel opment and economically effective with respect to the ecological cost that new invaders bring. As for the Chicago River, the proposed plug of the canal would take $18 billion and decades to complete, by that time Asian carp would likely be flourishing in the Great Lakes. The other approach that tackles the issue of Asian carp from a different direction is the daughterless gene concept. By a twist of DNA, the daughterless gene is implanted in a fish so that they can only produce male offspring. If there are enough fish with the daughterless gene over a sustained period then the population will run out of females to carry it on. Using this genetic tool will lie in the hands of politicians who can decide, whether, when, where and how the daughterless gene is used. The daughterless gene works on mussels and other types of invasive species as well as the Asian carp, giving it the potential to restore the lakes back to their native balance. These simple approaches Dan Egan suggests seem to be the types of approaches that will manage the lakes to being ones that provide safe drinking water, a balanced fishing industry and clean beaches for the millions of people that recreate in the region. The future of these lakes remains in the hands of The Great Lakes State, along with the seven other states and two provinces in the region, to make critical decisions on the most pressing issues.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes largely focuses on the harms invasive species have produced and the impending threats that they bring. Dan Egan glosses over many of the other human-induced environmental pressures the Great Lakes are under but that is not to limit the significance of these other issues. Significant threats mentioned include agricultural runoff and Lake Erie's increasingly severe algal blooms, water withdrawal, water level changes, nonpoint source pollution, toxic chemicals and water quality.

Hannah MacDonald is an undergraduate policy fellow at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.