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“The Death and Life of the Great Lakes”
By Dan Egan
W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95
Reviewed by Tom Henry
Journalist Dan Egan rightfully gained accolades for his debut book, “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” which is one of the most comprehensive and well-researched to come out in years about North America’s largest collection of fresh surface water.
The volume has its shortcomings but is a fine compendium of many of the Great Lakes’ known and documented ills, from invasive species to large-scale diversion threats.
Although the Great Lakes are not the largest source of freshwater, as many North Americans mistakenly believe, the region is, in fact, one of the world’s most intensely studied ecosystems. Research generated from it on anything from cancer-causing PCB contamination to climate change is a major driver for environmental laws throughout the United States and, to some degree, the world.
What makes Egan’s book outstanding isn’t so much that he’s enlightening the world about issues few people have ever heard about, but the depth of his reporting, his meticulous attention to detail and generally engaging (if at times less than conversational) writing.
That’s a tall order for anyone writing an environmental book. And if you’re a Great Lakes diehard, like I am, there are some eye-opening details in Egan’s book, especially in the historical context and manner in which he sets up most of his chapters. Egan, a staffer for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for years, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and it shows.
Challenges of writing about Lake Erie’s algae crisis
Any book that attempts to be an all-in-one compendium for such an expansive region is an extremely ambitious project in its own right, given the region’s complexity and diversity. That’s why there are so many Great Lakes books focusing on particular watersheds.
Take Lake Erie, which I’ve covered myself for decades. It’s the most important of the Great Lakes because, as the warmest, shallowest and most biologically dynamic, it is Ground Zero for a lot of Great Lakes science and policy.
Lake Erie is the Great Lakes region’s connection to Earth Day, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and many other national programs. Today’s sewage regulations emanated largely from research here. There are more fish in Lake Erie than all of the other Great Lakes combined, so there’s obviously a lot of interest in this lake’s biology.
While I remain highly impressed by much of Egan’s book — his chapters on Asian carp, zebra and quagga mussels, ballast water, the history and politics of the Chicago diversion and fisheries in general are outstanding — I was left unsatisfied by his chapter on western Lake Erie’s chronic algae, entitled “North America’s ‘Dead’ Sea,” a bit of a stretch that perpetuates the myth that Lake Erie is unique in regard to algae.
It’s not: Lake Erie’s chief form of toxic algae, a bacteria called microcystis, is one of Earth’s oldest-living organisms, now growing exponentially worldwide as freshwater supplies vanish.
It’s growing in western Lake Erie, but also in China’s Lake Taihu (which contends with it nine months of the year and not long ago had a tap water crisis similar to Toledo’s) and in Africa’s Lake Victoria. It’s in Australia, South Florida and the Pacific Northwest. It’s as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as the southern tip of South America.
The common denominators are climate change and poor land use. Lake Erie is far from unique: It is the clarion call for a very serious and emerging worldwide problem.
How the U.S. fell behind on algae research
Egan missed some opportunities in his algae reporting, for instance, by relying too narrowly on one researcher, despite the dozens of scientists across the Great Lakes region and the world now studying one of the biggest research challenges on the planet.
While he accurately notes the modern era of blooms began in the mid-1990s, something many people don’t know or forget, there’s precious little in his chapter showing just how far behind the United States allowed itself to get on this issue as it put more money into politically sexy invasive species research.
When the Toledo water crisis hit in August 2014, water-treatment plant operators were literally begging for more homegrown science. At the time, officials were leery of relying on a 1998 recommendation issued largely for Third World countries by the Geneva-based World Health Organization. But it wasn’t until May of 2015, almost another year later, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — under duress from an impatient Great Lakes congressional delegation — released its America-specific health advisory for microcystin, the toxin produced by microcystis.
It’s certainly one of the most comprehensive
Great Lakes books ever written, a labor of love.
Meanwhile, response to the biological train wreck known as Asian carp had become such a drawn-out, molasses-like bureaucratic exercise that Lake Erie charter boat fish captains held a news conference in 2016 to complain of what they saw as “Asian carp fatigue” in Congress.
This book would have benefitted by those and other details.
And Egan ends the Lake Erie chapter with a meaningless statistic about raw water near Toledo’s intake peaking at 5 parts per billion. That sounds high, because finished tap water was supposed to be less than 1 ppb, according to the WHO guideline that was being used then. But water-treatment plant operators here have told me they’ve seen raw water concentrations as high as 100 ppb, and that they feel pretty confident they can handle anything 50 ppb or less without too much difficulty.
Egan also repeats the mistaken notion that Toledo’s water-distribution system was temporarily shut down. It wasn’t. Because officials feared it could take weeks or months to flush out the system if it was ever completely shut down, resulting in chaos, they instead strongly urged residents not to drink, bathe, wash clothes or otherwise use water from their tap until the crisis subsided in its third day.
Despite all this, I remain in awe of Egan’s effort for many of its other chapters. It’s certainly one of the most comprehensive Great Lakes books ever written, a labor of love he told me required him to take a 20-month leave of absence.
From a writer’s perspective, his book is a reminder about what an ambitious, humbling undertaking it is trying to get all pertinent information and history about this fascinating and globally unique ecosystem between two covers.
Tom Henry is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor and created The (Toledo) Blade’s environment beat in 1993.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 42. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.