Dan Egan is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize which is awarded for the best journalism of the year. He has written a fascinating book called The Death and Life of the Great Lakes about our very own Lake Michigan and the dangers it has encountered. Egan is a master story teller who takes scientific explanations and puts them in layman’s terms so we all can understand what threatens our Great Lakes and what needs to be done.
Chicago News: I believe you’re the only journalist in America who covers the Great Lakes as a beat reporter. How did you get this assignment?
Dan Egan: I’m a native of Wisconsin and spent a lot of my childhood summers on or near the waters of Lake Michigan. When I moved back to my home state after a decade as a newspaper reporter out West, I had no formal “beat” at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel but I somehow kept writing about the lakes in one way or another. I wrote about struggling commercial fishermen, about the importance of ice-breaking ferries to island residents, about the stunning ecological changes wrought by contaminated freighters sailing into the lakes from all over the globe. Pretty soon my bosses decided that covering the Great Lakes should be a full-time job. It turned out that there wasn’t a newspaper in the region, apparently, that had a full-time Great Lakes reporter. That was kind of surprising, given how ecological and economically important the lakes are to the 40 million people who live near the shores.
CN: In 2010 and 2013, you were named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for your journalism. Have your pieces changed the way the people perceive the Great Lakes?
DE: The problem with the lakes is they are so big people just take them for granted. I don’t think the settlers in the 1800s took the lakes for granted. They were essential for transportation and their teeming fish stocks were sustenance for cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Toronto. With freshwater becoming increasingly scarce, I don’t think people will be taking lakes for granted one hundred years from now. My goal is to speed that process along by illuminating the troubles facing the lakes and exploring ways to preserve their health for future generations.
CN: The Great Lakes are famously home to 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. As concerns about water shortages in California and across the globe mount, how do you foresee this issue impacting the lakes?
DE: Almost a decade ago, the Great Lakes legislatures and governors did a remarkable thing. They established an eight-state agreement that blocks most all diversions from the lakes beyond their natural watershed beauty. The rationale is that most all the water piped from the lakes but kept water inside the watershed eventually trickles and dribbles down rivers, streams, and sewers back into the lakes. Water piped over the watershed line, whether it’s one mile over or 1,000 miles over, never returns, and if enough of it is diverted over time, the lakes can begin to shrink. This was not an easy deal to reach, because it’s one thing for a Great Lakes governor to say “no” to a water request from California. It’s quite another to deny a city inside your own state borders. But the governors decided that if they did not respect the lakes’ natural borders, how could they expect anyone else to? In the end, the deal was ratified by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush. Canada has a similar law. The problem is water shortages are growing worse and what Congress grants, Congress can take away, so the pressure to pipe Great Lakes water to drier lands is probably never going to go away.
CN: What risks do climate change and other environmental problems pose for the future of the Great Lakes?
DE: There are some 10,000 miles of coastline in the Great Lakes, and unlike oceans, the levels of massive freshwater seas are built to fluctuate – to a degree. The levels can vary seasonally by a foot, and over the course of several years can swing by as much as six feet. The problem now is that evaporation-precipitation cycle that has kept the lakes so uncannily balanced for so long appears to be heading out of whack. This may not necessarily mean the lakes are going to shrink. But it could mean the high levels are going to get higher, and the low levels are going to get lower. This could pose huge implications for property owners, for shipping, and for drinking water and sewage treatment in cities like Chicago and Toronto.
CN: What needs to be done to protect the future of the Great Lakes?
DE: The first thing that needs to be done is that the door to future invasions needs to be shut. That means adequate ballast-water treatment systems for ships sailing into the lakes. If that can’t be achieved, perhaps the best answer is to block the ships from sailing in. These oceangoing vessels amount to only a sliver of the tonnage moved on the lakes anyway, and the problems they may have caused have been immense. It’s a similar situation for the “back door” to the Great Lakes: the basin. That canal is now the prime pathway for yet another invasion – the giant, jumping Asian carp, among many other species. If we can close these doors, then we can give the chance for the lakes’ native species to find a balance with all the newcomers. It’s already starting to happen, but the end of this nascent recovery is just one invasion away.
By Jim Vail