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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

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A master reporter’s landmark work of contemporary ecology.

The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, and they provide food, work, and weekend fun for tens of millions of Americans. Yet they are under threat as never before.

In a work of narrative reporting in the vein of Rachel Carson and Elizabeth Kolbert, prize-winning reporter Dan Egan delivers an eye-opening portrait of our nation’s greatest natural resource as it faces ecological calamity. He tells the story of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Chicago ship canal—good ideas in their time that have had horrendous consequences. He explains how invasive species such as Asian carp, sea lamprey, and zebra mussels have decimated native species and endanger the entire United States. And he examines new risks, such as unsafe drinking water, the threat of water diversions, and “dead zones” that cover hundreds of square miles of water—while showing how the Great Lakes can be restored and preserved for generations to come.

364 pages, Hardcover

First published March 7, 2017

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About the author

Dan Egan

2 books175 followers
Dan Egan is the author of The Devil's Element and the New York Times bestseller The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. A journalist in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's School of Freshwater Sciences, he is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his wife and children.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,501 reviews
Profile Image for Brina.
887 reviews4 followers
October 15, 2017
For years my mother has refused to drink tap water claiming that zebra mussels have affected the taste of her water supply. Lake Michigan is part of the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater source in the world, and to me, the water still tastes crystal clear, until this past summer when it did not, and I reluctantly joined her in drinking filtered water. While zebra mussels are only one issue affecting the future of the Great Lakes today, the species is hardly the only living being or environmental change that could affect the future of the Great Lakes in the century to come. Dan Egan in his Pulitzer finalist The Death and Life of the Great Lakes has exposed how science and history have wrought change on the once cleanest, freshest bodies of water in the world.

Until the advent of the industrial revolution, the Great Lakes- Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Erie- were self contained and held the majority of the world's fresh water. Explorers Marquette and Joliet discovered waters so pristine in 1684 that they thought that they had at long last discovered the mythical Northwest Passage to Asia. Although mistaken, the French explorers were among the first Europeans to view waters crystal clear and teeming with fish such as perch, bass, walleye, and whitefish, all fish that had swam in these waters since the lakes had been formed by the melting of glaciers at the close of the last ice age. Following Marquette and Joliet, however, came more explorers who used means of transportation other than primitive canoes. In order to reach the western great lakes from the St Lawrence Seaway would mean passing through treacherous waters from Montreal onward through Niagara Falls until they came across clear sailing in the continuous lakes Huron and Michigan. The need to create a system of canals creating a single path from the Atlantic to the Mississippi had been born and with it the end of the self contained ecosystem that the Great Lakes had known for millennia.

In a balance of scientific evidence, historical anecdotes, and interviews, Egan maps out the past, present, and future of the Great Lakes as we know them. He details everything from invasive species to the drainage of a bog by farmers to geological patterns and how each instance has wrought havoc on the eighth sea. He begins by discussing how the birth of the St Lawrence Seaway and Erie and Welland Canals brought the first steamer ships and with them hundreds of invasive species of fish and organisms. With canals popular in the late 19th century, scientists did realize the magnitude of the problem until the 1950s, and by then 70 years of damage had to be undone. Species such as the lamprey eel, alewife, Asian carp, and zebra and quagga mussel have killed off native fish such as whitefish, chubs, and trout. Scientists have had to contain and attempt to kill off these species while attempting to reintroduce native species such as trout and perch while also introducing non native noninvasive species such as chinook salmon in an attempt to restore order to nature.

As early as the 1960s, Michigan head of fishery and wildlife Howard Tanner saw that the lakes were dead. He viewed the steamers coming from Europe as the root of the problem, yet, it will not be until 2021 that all steamers will be required to dump their water before entering the Great Lake system of water. Tanner knew that commercial fishermen at this point had dwindled with the lampreys, alewifes, and mussels taking over the lakes. He decided to introduce salmon to the lakes in an attempt to stymy the alewives and siding with leisurely weekend fishermen and vacationers rather than those who fished for a living. Tanner's plan worked, that is until the mussel invasion became rampant. Egan points out that certain fish like the whitefish have adapted their diet to eating mussels and the lake is starting to rebound; yet, the future of the lakes and what fish is to be found in them is still to be decided.

Being a native Midwesterner, Egan's findings on the science behind the zebra mussels as well as the mix of history as to how they arrived in Lake Michigan was fascinating to me. Chicago's decision to link Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River basin as a means of ridding the lake of human waste and making the water fit for drinking has essentially linked all American waterways. Hitching rides on pleasure boats, steamers, and barges, zebra and quagga mussels have found their way west. To quell the invasion, states such as Utah have began boat contamination programs and made it illegal to transport any mussels alive or dead. If this finally stems the spread of zebra mussels, then Utah scientists have a leg up on their Midwestern counterparts. If not, as Egan points out, then fish in these states will have to learn to adapt to their new surroundings as some of the Great Lakes native fish have and actually started to rebound.

Egan believes that the future of the Great Lakes does not depend on scientists but on children like his son who still enjoy fishing its waters and invest in its future. My kids and I love swimming in Lake Michigan each summer and have thankfully not stepped on a zebra mussel yet. Whether it is only a matter of time until one of us does or if whitefish have indeed rebounded their population and begun to feast on mussels remains to be seen. It is my hope that Egan's findings have opened more eyes than not so that the Great Lakes as we have known them will still be there to be enjoyed by future generations.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,396 followers
May 6, 2018
Egan separates a couple of salient facts by the length of a book, but I here eclipse the space between them:
The Great Lakes are the largest expanse of freshwater in the world.
The Great Lakes are in the midst of a slow-motion ecological catastrophe begun by opening to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic.
Freshwater is the world's most precious natural resource.
“The intuition is that a very large lake like this would be slow to respond somehow to climate change. But in fact we’re finding that its particularly sensitive.”
After the last election I became laser-focused on Wisconsin. I watched as a traditionally blue state voted red, and kept Governor Scott Walker and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in office through severe gerrymandering that could not be reversed even by mandate from federal judges. The Wisconsin gerrymandering case was forced to our country’s highest court, and SCOTUS's decision on the fairness of such twisted districts should be heard before the November 2018 election. But decisions made by the severely gerrymandered Republican legislature has been allowed to impact and will continue to impact Lake Michigan’s watershed at a time when it needs urgent attention.

A proposed $10 billion investment in Paul Ryan's District #1 by Taiwan's Foxconn, maker of touch screens for the iPad, was inked in 2017. Foxconn will use 7 billion gallons of water from Lake Michigan per day, five billion of which will be used outside and not returned to the lake's watershed area. By the end of Egan's book, contracts like this and that made with Waukesha city, a suburb of Milwaukee and also outside the watershed area, take on far greater meaning.

Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes have been under pressure from invasive species from the Seaway to the north, and from the south through the Sanitary & Ship Canal to the Mississippi. Just when scientists managed to tackle the problems caused by one devastating species, they would encounter another, even more overwhelming, until we arrived where we are now, with toxic algae blooms regularly threatening the water supplies of major cities that use lake water for drinking water.

Besides that, we discover the increases in the lake’s winter temperatures means increases in the lake’s summer temperatures, encouraging evaporation and shrinkage of water area. This, along with pollution of existing supplies and inevitable demands from rapidly drying areas of the country who have gone through their aquifers is increasing the pressures on scientists to refresh and preserve this enormously important natural resource. It requires attention and political support, and one fears what would happen should business-influenced politicians force through compromises that have short-term gains for the few and long term consequences for the many.

Dan Egan is a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and has been researching and reporting on the Great Lakes for at least a decade. He has done something we rarely encounter: he has made science and history come alive. As I did my own research into the political conditions in Wisconsin, I thought it would be important to learn more about Lake Michigan which plays such an important role in the life and economy of the state but I expected Egan’s book would be struggle to read. Instead I found it completely riveting and hard to put down. When was the last time you said that about a science/geography/history book?

A few years ago I read another nonfiction title, Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown that was similarly involving. Although the history of the Washington crew team competing in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany is long over, Brown made the book completely propulsive and un-put-down-able. That is the way I feel about Egan's book.

One threat to the lakes follows another, and our hearts squeeze as we hear of dangers and disasters in the last couple of years. It feels absolutely critical that we pay attention to the resource--freshwater--scientists have been telling us for half a century is in limited supply and which has everything to do with life on earth.

I can’t recommend this title more highly. Egan should definitely be on award lists for this title, and indeed has already scooped a couple. The W.W. Norton paperback came out last month (April 2018) and the Random House Audio production is likewise terrific, narrated by Jason Culp.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,700 reviews2,299 followers
October 23, 2021
If you care about the environment and sustainability, you must read this book.

Even if you live thousands of miles away from these North American freshwater marvels, this book makes the case why we should all care about the impacts of invasive species, eutrophication, and the larger issues of climate change and access to fresh water.

An unparalleled work of reportage and science writing.
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,403 reviews316 followers
February 19, 2017
Dan Egan's book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes was distressing to read. I know these lakes. I have lived near the Great Lakes for almost 50 years. I grew up along the Niagara River and have lived 40 years in Michigan--including seven years living near Lake Michigan, three years so close I heard the sound of the waves day and night.

I have seen the lakes die and become reborn and die again. I remember in the 1970s when the water at the base of Niagara Falls foamed with brown-yellow froth from pollution. I remember when shallow Lake Erie was declared dead; the wonder of it's rebirth; now its waters have become poisonous.

We have wrecked havoc with the beautiful and perfect ecosystem. We have made decisions based on capital gain, without foresight or thought about our actions' impact on the natural balance. We have altered the landscape to serve our need, heedless of the consequences.

We dug canals, opened the Lakes to world-wide shipping, dumped industrial and agricultural waste into their waters. Non-native species, by accident or intent, were brought in and allowed to become established and alter the ecosystem.

And in the big picture we have contributed to a climate change that threatens the Lakes as their waters remain warm and ice free in winter, promoting evaporation and lowering lake levels.

My husband and son camped in the Upper Peninsula in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They knew the lake levels were dropping. The shipwrecks along the Superior coast between the Hurricane River campground and the Au Sable lighthouse were more exposed every year. The Sitka had been underwater when they first saw it. Later it was exposed. The cold waters of Lake Superior preserved the shipwrecks; exposure will speed their decay.
Egan's book explains how we got to 'here': a Lake Michigan so devoid of life you can see deep into its waters; a Lake Erie covered in poisonous algae that makes the water undrinkable; lake levels dropping, evaporation increasing. And the whole country itching to get a share of the water. Canada's decisions also impact what happened, or does not happen, to the lakes. Had they closed the 'front door' to allow foriegn ships direct access into the Lakes the introduction of alien species would have been stemmed.

The Lakes were a 'closed system', an ecosystem developed and perfected in isolation since the glacial melt created them at the end of the last ice age. In "The Front Door" section Egan explains how the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Welland Canal, and even the Erie Canal opened the door to non-native species. The native Lake Trout were killed off by Sea Lampreys. Alewives found their way into the lakes and flourished, replacing native species, Coho and Chinook Salmon were brought in to feed off the Alewives. The Salmon were chosen over restocking native fish because sportsmen preferred them. For a time the Winter Water Wonderland of Michigan offered some of the best fishing around. Then--the Salmon ate all the Alewives and were left starving.

The next wave of invaders were the Zebra and Quagga Mussels. Inedible to native fish, they flourished in the lakes and quickly covered everything. Literally. Including the inflow pipes that provided drinking water and water for industry. The costs for controlling the mussels is mind boggling.

The second part of the book, "The Back Door," tells how Asian Carp are waiting in the Chicago Canal System to invade Lake Michigan; how mussels were carried from the Great Lakes to invade pristine Western Lakes; and addresses the Toledo Water Crisis, created when the Black Swamp was drained and turned into the lush farmland whose fertilizers are carried into the lake to feed the algae.

In Part Three, "The Future," Egan explains how climate change, the bottling of lake water, and the diversion of the water to 'dry' states will impact the future of the Lakes.

The final chapter addresses ways to move into a sustainable future for the Great Lakes.

America already is facing a water crisis as glacial ground water is used up and changing weather patterns bring drought. It is urgent that we address how to protect our most important resource--the Lakes, which comprise 20% of the world's fresh water--before it is truly too late.

Egan's book lays out the history and the problems we have wrought in the past. Can we--will we--preserve and restore the Great Lakes? As a new presidential administration takes over with ties to business and unfriendly to science I fear the Federal Government will not provide support.

I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Profile Image for Monica.
582 reviews610 followers
June 4, 2018
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes was one of those books that was fascinating and engaging well beyond my expectations. No one was more surprised than me that the history of the Great Lakes would be so captivating. But this was far more than a history book. It's also a bit of an horror story without the inevitability of doom. In an America that finds itself being governed by a President Trump, it isn't a stretch to understand that we have a long history of squandering one of our greatest assets. What has transpired in the history of the Great Lakes is fundamentally about corporate avarice as well as individual hubris and macho individualism and selfishness. Heck, that's the story of America.

Egan believes that in the coming years, fresh water will become the world's most precious resource. The Great Lakes are home to 20% of the fresh water supply in the world. We share the Great Lakes with our neighbor to the north, Canada (perhaps that is why there is no talk of building a wall there--oh who am I kidding, the American perception of a Canadian is a white male drinking beer and using the word "Ay" at the end of every sentence). Needless to say, as we face an uncertain future with climate change, the maintenance of the Great Lakes becomes paramount. It truly is the most lucrative treasure that we have. So of course we have a deep history of exploitation and greed and general selfishness that has reared its ugly head since their discovery. Funny thing is, that shortsighted stinginess on a massive scale may have been what saved the Great Lakes from an ecological death.

History details the discovery of the inland sea. There was a desire to make the metropolitan areas that emerged on the lakes into major ports of call. More opportunity to export and import commerce worldwide to inland cities. Thus became the desire to build a canal from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. There was a desire to capitalize on this idea much in the same way that the canals enhanced commerce around the world (Suez, Panama etc). This desired represented one of the more successful bilateral country treaties. The expense was beared by the US and Canada and the system would run through both countries. Egan chronicles the development of the various locks and canals (Erie etc) to connect the Atlantic Ocean via the St Lawrence seaways to the Great Lakes. It's win-win!! What could possibly go wrong…? Well for starters, they built the canal to work with 19th century ships of transport. In a word, too small. And the desire to increase the size of the canals were dampened by the incredibly large price tag associated with expansion. So only the smaller ships could make their ways to the Great Lakes so cities like Chicago and Cleveland and Toledo etc, never get to be major ports of call except for trade among other metropolitan cities located on or near the Great Lakes. Ah, but this doesn't stop the callous disregard for the treasure of fresh water. Indeed, entitled Americans and corporations were rife with disdain for their lucre. The cities located on the lakes essentially made them into a giant toilet bowl and trash dump. A situation so pervasive that it gave rise to disease outbreaks in the cities and the rivers that fed the Great Lakes quickly became toxic, flammable trash heaps endangering the health of the population as well as the fish. Back then as well as today, action is predicated upon greed. The commerce in the cities was faltering and the fishing industry suffering and thus was born the Clean Water Act. Shortsightedness was never in short supply, the clean water act did not include the ships coming in from the Atlantic dumping their ballast water, thus begins the alien species invasions. Some of which were horrific. These environmental invasions were by far the most terrifying and overwhelming. The methods of dealing with it included eradication of a species with very targeted poisons to genetic manipulation (which introduces some truly scary ethical considerations) to introducing new alien species to control (see eat) the other invasive species. But controlling an alien invasion wasn't the only reason for introducing new species into the Great Lakes. Native Trout fish don't provide much of a challenge, so in order to attract sport fishing to the Lakes, Chinook Salmon were introduced. They are a far more interesting sport fish and the come with the added bonus of subsisting on an alien species fish. But these man made forms of control obviously and inevitably had unintended consequences…every time. There are tales of sparkling water salesmen and of men trying to sell fresh water (owned by public) to other countries and trying to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes that have already invaded national water system (carp) and tales of invasive species in the Great Lakes escaping into the national water system (mussels). There are ecological battles being waged daily all over the country that people seem to know little about. Always we are in danger of putting the lakes out of balance and thus frankly the entire country. The most important battle is of course climate change. With the average lake temperatures rising 1.6 F degrees a year translates into less ice which translates into higher water temps which translates into more evaporation and a receding shorelines of the lakes. Though Egan stresses that the Lakes are likely to be around in our lifetimes, he wonders about his children and future generations.

For all of these dangers (mostly man-made and ignored until it becomes impossible to do such), Egan presents some optimism. For all of the foibles, the Lakes seem to be adjusting and bouncing back. The eradication of one species saw the resurgence of other native species. The Lakes seem to endure. Egan ends the book by saying that it will be future generations that have to deal with the importance of the Great Lakes. He shows a picture of his young son catching his first trout and hopes that it sparked his interest in preserving the Lakes.

This was a fantastic book that richly details the history of the Great Lakes and outlines the historical, political, economic and environmental battles. Frankly I think this is must read stuff for mankind to discover the ecological mess we are making and understanding why we need to care. Egan has written an engaging and interesting masterpiece. A far more enjoyable and surprisingly optimistic and positive read than expected. Recommended for anyone who cares about the Earth!!

5 Stars

Read on kindle
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,666 reviews440 followers
April 16, 2018
Dan Egan, a journalist who covers the Great Lakes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has written a fascinating book about the changes in their ecosystems. The Great Lakes (Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior) hold about 20% of the world's freshwater, a precious commodity.

For years, the Lakes and their connecting rivers were isolated from invasive species from the Atlantic Ocean by the tremendous force of the Niagara Falls which prevented organisms from moving upstream. The construction of the Erie Canal and the St Lawrence Seaway (bypassing the Falls) permitted shipping barges coming from the Atlantic Ocean to travel through all the Great Lakes. The barges carried ballast water that can be pumped out to adjust for taking on cargo. The ballast water also released invasive species from ports all over the world. The Great Lakes now contain 186 non-native species, including the zebra and quagga mussels from the Black and Caspian Seas. The mussels and other invaders have done severe damage to the ecosystems as well as costing millions of dollars of damage every year.

The lakes were also separated from the Mississippi River basin by the subcontinental divide. But the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was built in 1900 to allow sewage to go into the Mississippi River system. This is an opening for non-native species from the Mississippi River system to enter the Great Lakes. There is a worry that gigantic Asian carp from Arkansas may enter the Lakes system from this "back door".

One of the biggest threats to the drinking water is a blue-green toxic algae in Lake Erie that feeds off phosphorus draining from fertilized farms in the region. Toledo's water supply was shut down for several days in 2014 when the deadly toxin entered the city's water system.

Egan discusses water shortages and environmental threats to the water supply in other parts of the United States, and the financial implications in some of the ending chapters. He also writes about policy changes that could help the situation. Egan also recognizes the wonderful recreational value of the Lakes. The book combines science and history with many quotes from scientific experts, fishermen, and government officials. I found "The Death and Life of the Great Lakes" to be a well-researched and exceptionally interesting book.
Profile Image for Max.
341 reviews298 followers
June 17, 2019
Egan traces the environmental decline of the Great Lakes from the pristine waters discovered by early European explorers to the despoiled waters of today. He skims over pollution and focuses on the problem of invasive species. He describes the dramatic changes as one invader after the other finds a home in the Lakes. While some species were able to go upstream in the St. Lawrence River and reach Lake Ontario, none could get past Niagara Falls to the other lakes, that is, until the Erie Canal opened the way in 1825. Larger and deeper canals followed eventually allowing ocean going ships into the lakes where they emptied their ballast water letting in a wide array of creatures from all over the globe.

The first invasive species to do serious damage to the Great Lakes native fish was the sea lamprey. Discovered in Lake Erie in 1921 and the upper lakes in the late 1930s the sea lamprey went on to decimate what had been an abundance of the popular lake trout. Biologists however figured out a way to get rid of the lampreys. Poison them and so they did catching the lampreys in their larval stage in rivers and creeks that flowed into the lakes. The next invader was the river herring which became known as the alewife. The alewife, as the lamprey before it, had been in Lake Ontario for over a century but when it reached the lakes above Niagara Falls, it caused real trouble. Lake trout would have kept the small alewives in check but the trout had been largely eliminated by the Sea Lamprey. The alewife population exploded. By 1965 this six inch fish comprised 90% of the fish mass in Lake Michigan. This overpopulation resulted in repeated massive die-offs fouling the lake and beaches.

The biologists answered with the introduction of Coho and Chinook salmon in the 1980s which brought about a renaissance for sport fisherman. The renaissance lasted twenty or so years until the alewife population became too diminished to support the salmon. The predator fish took their share of alewives but the alewives suffered from a more sinister problem. The plankton eating alewives had displaced native plankton eaters, but now the alewives lost out to a new invasive competitor. The filter feeding zebra mussel and its even more efficient cousin, the quagga mussel, fed on the alewives plankton. The zebra mussels first discovered in the Great Lakes in the 1980s gained notoriety for coating water intakes and pipelines causing damage that was expensive to repair. But the quagga mussel following in the 1990s would cause far worse damage.

The quagga mussels followed their relatives the zebra mussels from the Black Sea. While the zebra mussels had coated hard surfaces on the lake bottom the quagga mussels coated the much more extensive soft areas. The quagga mussels also survived at far greater depths than the zebra mussels and they fed year round not just in the warm months as did the zebra mussels. The quagga mussels became so prevalent and took in so much plankton that the water turned clear. By 2010 plankton had decreased by 90% and visibility through the water more than tripled. This food chain collapse finished off small feeder fish and in turn sport fish. But the new conditions were perfect for the growth of a plant, Cladophora, which soon coated the lake bottoms growing on top of the mussels. Cladophora now had the three things it needed to survive: light at great depths, phosphorus from the excrement of the mussels, and something to attach itself to, the shell of the mussels. When Cladophora eventually died it rotted taking the oxygen out of the water. This fostered the growth of botulism producing bacteria that thrive in low oxygen environments. The mussels took in the botulism. The goby, a small fish and still another invader from the Black Sea, had prospered eating the mussels. But now the gobies succumbed to botulism and died in droves. Seabirds in turn ate the dead gobies and they too suffered large scale die-offs.

Egan goes on to examine new threats to the Great Lakes. Perhaps most pressing is that of the Asian bighead and silver carp, both plankton feeders that dominate the food chain in the Mississippi River just as the zebra and quagga mussels do in the Great Lakes. Dumped into tributaries of the Mississippi by experimental biologists in the 1970s, the Asian carp have spread widely eliminating native fish. The Mississippi is not naturally connected to the Great Lakes, but the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal takes water from Lake Michigan and sends it to the Mississippi River basin providing a back door for invasive species such as the Asian carp. The federal government spent $318 million from 2009 -2015 to keep the carp out of the Great Lakes. As the threat grows more imminent, efforts are intensifying, but if history is a guide it’s just a matter of time before the new invader gets through.

Taking advantage of the flow of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal into the Mississippi, the zebra and quagga mussels have also spread widely into the river basin and even unattached lakes. How does that happen? The mussels attach themselves to boat hulls and people moving their boats carry the mussels to new homes. In 2007 they were found in Lake Mead which supplies water to Las Vegas and within two years they coated the lake bottom. From there they spread down the Colorado River much as they had the Mississippi. Killing and clearing the mussels from water intakes and dam infrastructure is now a significant ongoing expense. Lake Powell in Utah succumbed to the mussels in 2014 despite extensive prevention efforts that required hull inspections and cleaning for boats using the lake. To protect unaffected areas some states in in the West have made it a felony to carry or possess the mussels. The mussels have been labelled the STD of the sea.

Another threat to the Great Lakes is the spread of toxic algae blooms that have flourished due to phosphorous laden agricultural runoff, particularly in Lake Erie. The zebra and quagga musses contribute by spitting out the offending algae and consuming the non-toxic algae. The algae produced poison not only inhibits recreational use but threatens water supplies of cities that take their water from Lake Erie.

Perhaps a bigger threat long term is the tapping of the Great Lakes by water hungry distant locations. Midwest farmers are draining their aquifers. Cities from Atlanta to New York and many in the West are expanding and depleting their resources. Today state and provincial compacts in the US and Canada restrict water usage to counties that are in the drainage basin of the Great Lakes. But once a severe extended drought hits a major city or farming area the pressure will be intense to pipe the water to bail them out. The Great lakes hold 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. It’s an immense resource and may be the last one readily available as the U. S. and the world run out of fresh water. Egan only touches on this issue which requires a separate book.

Of course we can’t forget climate change. Climate Change exacerbates the problem prolonging droughts and altering traditional weather cycles. Climate change also affects the water levels of the Great Lakes. Climate change is causing prolonged stationary weather patterns and they are more extreme. Warm winter patterns mean less winter ice that raise water temperatures and increase evaporation lowering the water level. This was evidenced between 1998 and 2013 when the upper lakes (Michigan, Superior and Huron) reached record low levels. The low levels were also partly due to the increased flow of the St. Clair River which empties the upper lakes into Lake Erie. The St. Clair has been dredged to make way for ever larger ships and its bottom is eroding. Conversely when arctic air swings south over the lakes, it now can persist for a long time increasing the ice which will raise water levels. Such polar vortexes occurred in 2014 and 2015. The new normal is uncertainty about water levels that make managing and planning for those dependent on the Lakes very difficult.

One piece of good news is the adaptation of some native fish to their new environment. Lake Whitefish which are bottom feeders without teeth have learned to eat the small gobies and even the mussels. Their bodies have changed over generations particularly their stomachs which can now breakdown the mussel shells. Trout too have adapted to a new diet of gobies. Those species that can evolve quickly enough will survive, but this won’t be the last time they will be challenged. In addition to the back door Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal invasive species still have an open front door through the canals that allow ocean going ships into the upper Great Lakes. Regulations now require these ships to flush their ballast tanks mid-ocean, but compliance and effectiveness are another thing.

Egan does a great job of showing how one degradation leads to another, how the interplay of invasive life in a new environment creates conditions that are difficult to anticipate. He writes in a folksy style and fills his text with interesting bits of history and stories of the people involved that make the text flow fast. His narrative is much warmer than that in this review but the facts presented are not comforting. I have no special interest in the Great Lakes, but I think the story here is important. It is being repeated all over the world. Business interests dominate and environmental interests are ignored until the problem is so severe that correcting it is not feasible or outrageously expensive. Hasty counter-measures can make the problem worse. For those who want to understand the seriousness and complexity of invasive species, Egan’s book is an excellent choice.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
February 1, 2018
“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”—Joni Mitchell

The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s freshwater. They and area lakes and rivers have been repeatedly poisoned for the last couple hundred years, as if water supplies were somehow permanently resilient and endless. They are neither. When I swam in Lake Michigan in the seventies, for a couple summers I had to wade through a sludge of alewives spread across the shoreline. On the other hand, during that time you could never imagine a time in which you could swim in the Chicago-area lakeshore, where I now live, but today many do.

I am a huge fan of Rachel Carson. Dan Egan’s award-winning book stands in the same proud tradition of calling attention both to the greed and stupidity of neglecting one of our most precious resources and also the heroism of scientists (can I use that word, 45?!) who have had the ingenuity to time and time again rescue it from that greed and stupidity.

Our ambition in opening up the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Chicago ship canal has in the past had disastrous consequences, Egan shows us. What are the problems we now face? Invasive species such as Asian carp, sea lamprey, and zebra mussels have decimated native species and are not just a sport-fishing problem, but actually endanger the entire United States. Algae poisoning caused by over-fertilization and run-off poisoned the water in Toledo in 2004 to the point where no one could drink it. This problem intensifies now, and is not yet solved.

We all know about Flint, still drinking water from plastic bottles. Perhaps you know about the water crisis in Cape Town, which runs out of water in less than 90 days. Our heads in the sand will not save it; neither will diverting water to all the other places that no longer have adequate water. The news today is that the snow levels in the US are at a 30 year low. In the already drought-devastated states west of the Rockies, this has serious implications for the immediate and not just the distant future. Climate change is real and heating up the lake, causing unprecedented evaporation.

Trump’s plan to gut the Clean Water Act, which is keeping the Great Lakes (and other lakes and rivers), alive, though corporate greed and its attendant rapacious poisoning practices continue and will inevitably increase, thanks to shorts-sighted and ignorant businessmen.


Vote for not only the restoration of the Clean Water Act, but an increase in protections, always. The thing I like about Egan’s book is that while making sure you know the threat of devastation is real, he also shows that we can still do much to save the lakes. Especially if you live near these lakes you should read this or at least some of this book. Necessary!!

Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”

Profile Image for Stephanie *Eff your feelings*.
239 reviews1,183 followers
October 14, 2017
This book was much more interesting than I anticipated. I live on Lake Erie, so when I saw the book at the library I picked it up.

The Great Lakes are not really lakes, they are inland fresh water seas. If you’ve ever stood on the shore of one, you know what I’m talking about. They are beautiful (yes, even Lake Erie is...now, thanks to the clean water act.) I recently saw Lake Michigan, where it just about meets up with Lake Superior and I was absolutely stunned by the beauty.

The fresh water on the surface of the planet is limited... in fact, if you were to put all the fresh water on the planet in gallon jugs, one of every five would be from the Great Lakes.

Because of climate change the future of the Great Lakes (our drinking water....water is life) are in danger. They have faced, and are facing, threats. But because the lakes are warming (and they are more sensitive to warming than an ocean is) they are evaporating faster than the water can be replaced.

This is bad.

I remember when the lake would freeze over entirely every winter. There would be ice fishing (which seems not fun), but that sort of thing hasn’t happened..... at least since a few years ago when we had the super awful arctic blast winter, but that winter was an outlier.

I hate winter, but I do love the lakes, and I like having water to drink. But because of the awful people now in control of things, like the clean water act (something Yammy wants to defund and remove....asshole) it’s not bloody likely the lakes will survive.

Profile Image for Jim.
1,102 reviews64 followers
December 19, 2019
I read this for a book discussion group--and I'm glad I did. I thought I knew all about the problems facing the Great Lakes, and, after all, I've been living near one of the Lakes most of my life. However, after reading this book by journalist Dan Egan (published in 2017), I realized that there was A LOT I didn't know, and, moreover, the situation is far worse than I thought. The most important fact about the five Great Lakes is that they are beyond value, as they constitute 20% of the accessible freshwater (not including water locked in ice and underground). As the world, and especially the American West, face increasing drought conditions, the water of the Great Lakes only becomes of greater value. Egan points out that the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 has proven to be an ecological catastrophe for the Great Lakes. In 1988, zebra mussels were discovered in Lake St. Clair between Lakes Erie and Huron. These destructive mollusks had spread from the Caspian and Black Seas into Europe by ship. It was surmised that they had entered the Great Lakes by being carried in the ballast tanks of oceangoing ships that had passed through the St. Lawrence Seaway. They rapidly colonized across the Great Lakes. Along with quagga mussels, they have destroyed ecosystems and have caused billions of dollars of damage to water intake pipes, dams, and other infrastructure. As Egan also points out, if the St.Lawrence Seaway is the front door into the Great Lakes, then the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is the back door. And another invader-- ( the Asian carp, and actually there are three species of them)--is threatening to enter the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River basin (into which they were released!). Egan also discusses other threats to the Lakes, such as the toxic algae which threatened Toledo's water supply and global warming's possible effects. And, as a resident of a Great Lakes state, I was angered by plans to build pipelines to siphon out the precious water of the Great Lakes for the parched West...No way. Egan hopes that we are now beginning to realize the indispensability of safe and clean water and that we have to protect what is our most valuable resource--water! And that means saving the Great Lakes.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,833 reviews411 followers
July 7, 2018
You pick up a book like this and on some level, you expect it to be dull. Dusty facts repeated. This book is something else entirely. It's an edge-of-your-seat nail-biting horror experience. There is shock after shock, at an unrelenting pace. It would have been a fun ride if it had been fiction, but this is reality and the facts slam-dunk you into the mud.

The story of the ecological collapses of the Great Lakes is devastating reading. The ale wives, the zebra mussels, the quagga mussels, the continuous threat of new invasive species arriving in the ballast water compartments of ocean-going vessels. The threat of species slipping in through the back-door, the canal connecting to the Mississippi river.

The man-made disasters of the Great Lakes and their surroundings are numerous and relentless. You'd think lakes that contain 20% of the world's fresh water would be better protected. That somewhere along the line, someone would actually have tried to make smart ecological decisions. But no. Sadly not.

This is an incredibly important book. In regards to invasive species, it's the best one I have ever read. In regards to fresh water, it is also one of the best ones I have ever read. The subject - ecological collapse, access to fresh water - will become ever more important as the global warming drives climate change to cause new rain fall patterns and increased drought.

Read this book! It's well-written, superbly paced and the terrible facts are presented in an easily digestible manner. I can't say it's fun, but I still didn't want to put the book down. Come on, order it! Reserve a book at the library. Educate yourself. It's rarely been as easy as with this book.
Profile Image for Celia.
1,165 reviews150 followers
October 17, 2018
I read this book to satisfy a prompt: a book that scares or intimidates. And did it ever!!

For thousands of years, the pristine Great Lakes were separated from the Atlantic by Niagara Falls and the Mississippi River basin by a "sub-continental divide". Then man begin to circumvent these barriers. The Erie Canal, the first circumvention, started to allow invasive species into the system. The St Lawrence Seaway continued to allow the invasion. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal routed Chicago's sewage away from the Great Lakes and into the Mississippi River Basin.

The description of the unforeseen effects of these great technological advances is chilling. Some of the invasive species are described in horrible detail: the sea lamprey, the quagga mussel and the zebra mussel. The picture of the sea lamprey's mouth is enough to scare you to death.

The writing in this book is very vivid and understandable. If you are from one of the 8 Great Lakes states or the 2 Canadian Provinces that border the lakes, I consider this book required reading. This book also describes effects beyond the eight states, so if you live anywhere in the USA, you might read something about your area.

I was glued to this book for the duration of the read. Scary, yes. However, the book, in its last section, does show hope for the future. A great read.

5 stars
Profile Image for Judith E.
532 reviews188 followers
June 7, 2018
Dan Egan and his excellent book have reinforced the notion that once you've messed with Mother Nature's delicate balance there is a resulting crash like a falling tower of cards. He has spent a lifetime living and writing about the Great Lakes, and he has penned a very readable page turner about man's influence on this and other watersheds.

Beginning with the creation of the Erie Canal, Egan explains how the perfect ecosystem of the world's largest body of freshwater was changed and damaged. How each impact was frantically counter-acted by man's attempts to restore the balance. He exposes how the alewive, lamprey, algae stench, zebra mussel, quagga, and salmon disasters came to be and how industrial and fertilizer runoff, dredging, dumping ship ballast and the Chicago Sanitary Canal have had mind-boggling impacts on our water.

Recommended to anyone who drinks water.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,301 reviews119 followers
September 14, 2017
Having lived in four of the eight states sharing a coastline with the five Great Lakes, I have a strong kinship to these beautiful, precious bodies of water. So, it was depressing to read Egan’s heavily researched book detailing the many problems that face the lakes today. The beautiful clear, blue waters of Lake Michigan do not demonstrate its health. Instead, its clarity is due to an invasion of zebra and quagga mussels from bilge water originating from the Caspian Sea, sucking up 90 percent of the lake’s phytoplankton.
Unfortunately, these bivalves continue to multiply and invade North American rivers and lakes. Scientists are at a loss as to how to control their damage on the lakes’ ecosystem. They were more successful in combating the lamprey, which devastated the fish population in the 1940s, and then the alewives in the 1950s. The introduction of western salmon fed on the alewives, creating a sport fishing boom as their numbers multiplied. It also triggered interest in the ecological health of the lakes, resulting in the banning of harmful pesticides like DDT. But spectacular salmon fishing fell off as the alewives and phytoplankton populations fell.
More bilge water dumps harboring foreign organisms resulted in infestations of spiny water fleas, fishhook water fleas, and bloody red shrimp. Farm land run-off of phosphates feed Lake Erie’s blue-green algae—and the toxic form called microcystis—threatening the drinking water for 11 million people. Climate change has caused a modest increase in the average temperatures of the lakes. But even this small increase has caused the lakes to lose more water to evaporation—both in summer and winter. Pressure to share the lakes’ water with drier communities and states is sure to increase. Highly recommend this most informative book.
Profile Image for Katy.
1,885 reviews150 followers
October 20, 2017
This is an excellent read on the Great Lakes and water in the USA. It is a call to heal our waters before it is too late.
Profile Image for Annie.
899 reviews307 followers
December 25, 2017
Until a year ago, I had lived all of my then-22 years of life along the same long, connected body of water. From the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland to the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal, this watershed is intimately familiar to me, my lifelong companion.

And it’s dying.

I’ve heard this book compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and while I’m wary to jump on board with such a comparison, I don’t think it’s an impossibility. Egan writes with a similar urgency and clarity of purpose. The topic is likewise chilling. Humans have been playing God with ecosystems, introducing species and removing others, for far too long, and it can’t be, won’t be, sustained by the earth.

It’s a reminder that, as proud as Clevelanders are of the cleanliness of Lake Erie relative to its status in the first half of the 20th century (when it was so bad that Dr. Seuss wrote a book about it, among other environmental crises: see The Lorax), the health of the lake is not as it appears. Sure, it may lack the intense pollution dumping of yore, and the waters may appear surprisingly clear, but that’s not because the water is healthy but because the water is dead. The microorganisms, the phyto- and zoo-plankton, are all being devastated by the invasive species. The invasive species, in turn, eat all the good algae but spit toxic algae species back out, letting the toxic algae completely overwhelm the good algae species and co-opt all of the available nutrients in the water. It's to the point where toxic algae blooms cover a fifth of Lake Erie, and just swimming in it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, skin blistering, and even liver failure. It also temporarily caused the entire Toledo region to go without water twice.

Not to mention the fact that these invasive species aren't just devastating the Great Lakes. What happens in the Great Lakes happens to all of North America, because it's all intricately connected. After invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels were allowed into the Great Lakes (mostly by freshwater ballast water, used to maintain balance in shipping vessels), they eventually made their way as far west as the Hoover Dam, which now must spend millions of dollars removing them constantly in order for the dam to operate.

I can’t really recommend this book to everyone- unless you have a deep curiosity concerning, and investment in, the Great Lakes region, or else a passion for reading about invasive aquatic species, you’ll likely find this dry- but for what it is, it’s perfect.
Profile Image for Danika Jones.
7 reviews2 followers
May 17, 2021
[Originally posted to Reader Jones]

I’ve read several books about pandemics and global warming and what not over the past couple of years, but when I spotted The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, I realized that I hadn’t read much of anything about America’s important bodies of water and how pollution, global warming, and other human-related activities have been affecting them in recent decades. So I decided to give this book a read.

The book follows the downright tragic mismanagement of the Great Lakes over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, which caused numerous, repeated collapses of native fish species and continue to have serious repercussions for the Lakes today. From building canals to reversing the flow of the Chicago River, from introducing salmon to the Lakes on purpose to introducing ocean mussels by accident, humans have inadvertently upset the delicate ecology of the Great Lakes over and over.

I honestly had no idea just how much damage people had done to the Great Lakes until I read this book, as I live on the East Coast and have never been anywhere near that region of the country. But the important lessons that this book teaches about the delicate nature of America’s waterways and the repercussions of destroying their natural food chains are applicable to far more than the Lakes themselves.

For example, I live near the Chesapeake Bay, which has suffered its own innumerable manmade issues over the years—and this book gave me a much better understanding of why those issues have such far-reaching consequences.

If you’re the sort of person who’s concerned about the environment, but you haven’t done much, or any, reading about America’s important bodies of water, I’d highly suggest you read The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Profile Image for Blaine DeSantis.
891 reviews107 followers
November 29, 2017
A very good and highly detailed book that looks at the problems that invasive species have caused in our Great Lakes and what has been done to try and combat these problems. Some interesting issues include the fact that the Erie Canal caused the first invasive species problem, how Chicago destroyed a natural barrier to such species, how the Clean Water Act backfired and caused so many problems due to a loophole that allowed ballast to be dumped into the Lakes, how phosphorus killed Lake Erie and how the drainage of a swamp area in Ohio way back in the 1800's caused a change to the entire eco-system (of course it also make for wonderful farmland which has helped feed our country!) Loaded with facts and information we discover the lamprey, the zebra and quagga mussels, along with the Asian Carp. Both a cautionary tale, as well as a story of the efforts to try and combat the problems that have been created by the invasive species.
Might not be for everyone, but I enjoyed huge chunks of this book!
Profile Image for Mark.
1,362 reviews103 followers
May 18, 2017
Okay, what do Asian carp, sea lamprey, homo sapiens, zebra mussels and climate change have in common? They are all destroying the mighty Great Lakes. Ouch! The five Great Lakes are one of the true wonders of the world, but we are continuously throwing wicked curve balls at this amazing water system. A system we all take for granted, much like our great oceans.
Dan Egan, a prize winning journalist, lays it all out here: the history, the canal systems, the invasive species, the various battles, which include the losses and recoveries and finally what can be done to restore and revitalize these national treasures.
Egan is a fine writer and his narrative flow, is smart and informative. At first, I thought this might be just a grim, painful look at the destruction of the Great Lakes, but Egan balances it out with some humor and a surprising amount of hope. Highly recommended. 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Booknblues.
1,098 reviews8 followers
January 8, 2018
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan gives the reader a good picture of the Great Lakes and the troubles which they face today. I was impressed with the research and care which Egan took in writing this book and found it easy to understand for a non-scientist.

Egan describes the Great Lakes as seen by the first Europeans as being majestic inland oceans surrounded by pristine forests. He goes on to illustrate their importance in the world today:

Most all the water on the planet—some 97 percent—is, of course, saltwater—basically useless to humans as sustenance or for irrigation. The sliver of freshwater left over is mostly locked up in the polar ice caps or trapped so far underground it is inaccessible. This leaves the Great Lakes holding roughly 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater.

Where problems began for the Great Lakes is that man could perfect them for the purpose of more readily bringing goods for import and export directly to the ports within the Lakes by developing an inland waterway. This led to numerous exotic species as lamprey eels, alewives, zebra and quagga mussels, which worked toward the destruction of native species.

I found this book fascinating, but realize it may not be for everyone.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
149 reviews21 followers
March 13, 2017
This wonderful and timely book is a great read about a timely subject. The writing is snappy and engaging, and can transform sometimes fairly technical discussions into a captivating study. What emerges clearly from this book is the critical importance of a much more sophisticated public conversation about the health of the Great Lakes at a time where there are proposal to reduce federal funding for crucial ecological restorations by as much as 97%.

The Great Lakes have already repeatedly suffered catastrophic environmental damage. Much of this damage can probably never truly be repaired. The Clean Water Act has critical limitations that limit its impact. At the same time, efforts to keep an anemic shipping industry afloat put the fragile green shoots of ecological health at continued risk. In particular, invasive species from ballast water will not be regulated until 2023 (if at all in light of new environmental policies and cuts) and the threat of Asian carp coming through the Chicago canal remains serious. Aside from these two gigantic problems, simply coping with current difficulties is a huge challenge. Simply controlling the lamprey infestation costs twice as much as the Trump administration is budgeting for Great Lakes restoration.

Understanding the ecology of the lake, harm that has already been done and the threats ahead are absolutely critical. This book is a major contribution to a informed citizenry around the Lakes, and hopefully, better policy. And not just that, it's an absorbing read. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Michelle.
236 reviews22 followers
December 20, 2018
I liked the overall story arc of the book. Egan really brought home the impact of invasive species, the ecology and health of the lakes, water conservation, and all the varied changes we humans have made to the lakes over the past century or two.

I was worried at first it would be dry but overall, I enjoyed the book. There were moments when the book goes into detail about a specific fish or mussel and I started to drift off until the author told another story that illustrates why the past several pages matter, and then I was back in.

I also spent about half the book looking up articles of events or happenings the book mentions in the library's NYT and Chicago Trib historical databases, which was quite fun!
Profile Image for Leo Walsh.
Author 3 books93 followers
August 18, 2017
Journalist Dan Egan's The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is a dense, detailed but fascinating look at where I hang my hat, on the shores of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. I lived through much of what Egan writes of here. When I was growing up in the late 70;s and early 80's, Lake Erie had recovered from the algal blooms that had choked it and the nasty pollution that caused the Cuyahoga to burn. Still, I heard about these incidents. Just like I'd heard my father moan about the decline and rebound of his favorite fishing prey, yellow perch and walleye.

My father was a traditionalist. taught his kids to fish for classic Great Lakes food species, like perch and walleye. It wasn't until after college that I learned the value of stocked trout. I missed the salmon boom, but still love to plow the rivers during the autumn and mild winter days to catch steelhead trout, which are stocked "anadromous" rainbow trout, who spawn in the rivers and grow fat during the summers on the lake.

Thing is, I never paid attention to how unnatural that was. Egan makes it clear, detailing the origins of the stocking. In the 50's and 60's, alewives invaded the Great Lakes via the brand-new Saint Lawrence Seaway. At the same time, pollution and another invader, lamprey eels, were killing the lake's native top predator, the lake trout. So to save the fisheries, scientists needed to kill lampreys, which they did, and then establish a predator population to control alewives.

Problem was, lake trout were a poor game fish. Like walleye, they provided a poor fight. Great eating, but not "sporting," like the spunky but nasty-tasting native smallmouth. Great Lakes governments wanted to create a sports fishing/ tourism industry, and needed a fish that fought like the smallmouth but was tasty. So they enlisted Howard Tanner, a Michigan-born fisheries biologist who learned his craft managing the near sterile southwestern reservoirs, enhancing their appeal to sports fisherman.

Thus empowered. Tanner introduced coho and chinook, who were spectacular fighters, tail walking and stripping line. Those fish feasted on the alewives, controlling their invasion. And sales of fishing boats and equipment caused the desired economic boom. Thing is, the salmon proved too effective at their jobs, and soon the salmon fisheries collapsed. What's more, since they are a managed species, it took funding to keep the ball rolling.

Luckily, the native lake trout are rebounding. Freed from the lampreys and foul water, they are re-establishing themselves as the Great Lakes' top predator.

Tanner's folly is the sort that makes me laugh. I love stories where bright, well-intentioned people create a brilliant solution to today's problem... that often backfire tomorrow. Which leads to the next solution and backfire. And the next. Regardless, man leaps from success turned failure to success turned failure with no loss of optimism. There's something noble and creative about that, seems to me.

Egan also spends considerable pages addressing the Lakes' most pressing problem circa 2017, the zebra and quagga mussel infestation. Like most Great Lakes natives, I'm aware of the problem. It's often on the news, especially when they clog up and important pipe. Still, Egan gives those reports perspective, an often-missing component on contemporary newscasts who deal in the sensational (if it bleeds, it leads), often sacrificing accuracy for dumbed-down ratings. So instead of interviewing an Ohio State scientist, they'll quickly cover the mussel-caused problem, and cut off to cover a tragedy, whether that tragedy is a murder, a drive-by or some other dramatic "pow."

Egan fills that void, providing substance. What I found most intriguing was the possibility that, as Global Warming increases droughts in the American west, that having fresh water could make the Great Lakes the sunbelt of the latter half of the 21st century. But Egan also made me aware of threats I didn't know existed, Asian bighead and silver carp, invasive species that are heading up the Mississippi towards the Lake Michigan. I also learned that nature created the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds as separate, but that Chicago created a sewage and shipping canal, connecting those sheds via the Illinois river... so they could flush their sewage downstream. Typical. NIMBY. And screw your neighbors, like downstream St. Louis.

On the fun side, I also learned about a super-funny event called the Redneck Fishing Tournament held on the Illinois River. Where locals exploit the invasive silver carp's propensity to jump several feet into the air when a boat engine spooks them. So the locals gather, swill some beer, and have a tourney. Where, instead of hook and line, they spook the fish, and catch the leaping critters in a landing net. check out the Redneck Fishing Tournament on YouTube. It's gave me a few chuckles.

Recommended for science, history and policy wonks. Five stars.
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews493 followers
December 18, 2017
A few chapters toward the beginning moved a bit too slowly for me, but the rest of the book was great. The first half of the book should have been subtitled: What are Ballasts and How Can They Affect the Health of Lakes and Even Threaten the Lives of Humans? The short and interesting answer is that boats are built with areas that can be filled with water, ballast water, which is taken in upon takeoff and dumped when the boat fills up with cargo. If the water that was taken in the boat comes from an environment that is suitable for salt water species and is dumped in a completely different environment, like the water of the Great Lakes, it can wreak havoc on the eco systems that took a long time to develop in the Great Lakes. In a very short time, that ecosystem can be destroyed and create an environmental crisis. The chapters go into extreme detail about how scientists came to understand that the ballasts were indeed what was ruining the ecosystems, and thus the health of, the Great Lakes. I was very interested in the general picture but felt that there was detail added that actually took detracted from the main message because I felt too bogged down in minute and unnecessary detail that kept stealing my focus.

All the detail added up to the fact that ballast water brought in foreign species, mainly through bringing eggs from seawater species and dumping it in the lakes. The EPA thought ballast water harmless and allowed ships to dump their ballast water without having any guidelines. That all changed when researchers made the issues public. To fix the problem, the ballast water had to be bleached to sterilize it and then treated with vitamin C to neutralize it before it could be dumped into the lake.

To make up for the over-detail-sharing, the author included a story about how ballast water made a ship wobble until it tipped and sank, killing more passengers than the Titanic.

Ballast water is not the only thing that has threatened the health of the Great Lakes. Phosphorus was a huge problem. This is one of the biggest problems with allowing sewage to flow into a body of water. Human urine contains a lot of phosphorus, which poisons lakes. For science lovers, you will really enjoy the story included about how one scientist boiled down buckets of urine to isolate phosphorus and how upon its discovery, was seen as a cure-all. It reminded me a lot of how radium was viewed in society before everyone realized how dangerous it actually was. Climate change is also creating a significant problem for the health of the Great Lakes.

At its core, this book read like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, warning its reader about how different pollutants can affect our most valuable natural resources. It was, at times, shocking how devastatingly fragile the fresh water environment is and it was made very clear how important it is to care for this resource. The book ends with suggestions about how to do just that. We should listen carefully to this warning.
Profile Image for Carol Evans.
1,253 reviews37 followers
July 24, 2018
I was actually at Lakeside Chautauqua on Lake Erie for a week earlier this summer. I’ve lived in Ohio most of my life and even if we don’t go up to Lake Erie often, it’s still part of our state identity, if that makes sense, which is why The Death and Life of the Great Lakes caught my attention. It’s an interesting book and an easy read, even for a non-history, non-science girl like me. We all know that humans affect the environment, but found it really interesting how a lot of the problems the lakes experience now can really be traced back to the 1800s when the lakes were first opened to the Atlantic Ocean and the Chicago River and onto the Mississippi.

Egan does a wonderful job of combining history and science in relating all the lakes have been through and why. He also includes individual’s stories, about what the lake was like when they were young versus today, or how they thought/think that the choices they made were in the best interest of the communities.

The last bit was especially interesting looking forward. In that section, Egan’s not talking about the fish or mussels or seaweed, he’s talking about the actual water. The Great Lakes account for 21% of the world’s surface freshwater and about 84% of North America’s. Many people think that the next set of wars will not be over oil but over water. Recently even places as far away as Atlanta have been eyeing the Great Lakes’ water to supplement their own supplies. At the moment, with few exceptions, a county needs to be in the Great Lake basin to utilize the Great Lakes as a source of water, but in the future who knows.

I won’t remember many of the details Egan supplied, but I will remember his general points. I would definitely recommend The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, especially for those of us with a connection to the lakes, which is pretty much all of us, one way or another.
Profile Image for Thom.
1,549 reviews46 followers
July 13, 2019
Excellent, if sobering, history of trade, recreation and ecosystems on the Great Lakes. Also covers related changes in the rest of the country, including the Mississippi basin and Lake Mead. Very readable and interesting!

Dan Egan is reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, focused specifically on the Great Lakes. This book focuses primarily on the ecosystem, from pristine (famed lake trout) to heavily invaded (the ale wife and later quagga mussels) to some form of recovery (white fish evolving for a new food source). He also focuses on the history of canal projects to open up the lakes for commerce, or clean up Chicago sewage.

While primarily an American story, the Canadian angle is also mentioned. The politics of multiple states and provinces trying to deal with ecological problems is daunting. Comparing the nuisance cost of porting goods or cleaning boats to the billions spent repairing the damage is shocking. Fresh water is a focus towards the end of the book, including water grabs by Atlanta, California and others. An excellent quote from the book, showing the scale of what we are talking about here:

“Roughly 97 percent of the globe’s water is saltwater. Of the 3 percent or so that is freshwater, most is locked up in the polar ice caps or trapped so far underground it is inaccessible. And of the sliver left over that exists as surface freshwater readily available for human use, about 20 percent of that—one out of every five gallons available on the planet—can be found in the Great Lakes.”
Profile Image for Mark Mortensen.
Author 1 book70 followers
October 20, 2017
Early into this book my mind constantly drifted to my vacation home where today I am stocking bluegill and rainbow trout into my 1+ acre pond, supplied by over 12 natural springs and 2 pristine flowing creeks.

The Great lakes contain 1/5 of the fresh water in the world, but how fresh is the water? The history and current day analysis are fully discussed in this book, which in part is a suspense filled “whodunit”. Much of the biological turbulence and natural disorder that has occurred within the Great Lakes was assisted by humans and although their thought process was well intended they did not comprehend the full ramifications of each and every change to the natural habitat and waterway boarders. The problems extend way beyond pollution as today there are close to 200 nonnative organisms living in the Great Lakes including numerous that are invasive originating in Asia and other foreign territories. Now the Great Lakes ecosystem teeters between life support and survival of the fittest.

During the 20th Century the water within the Great Lakes became rapidly globalized. My final thoughts led me to ponder beyond the Great Lakes to nature at a higher level, concerning the United Nations human globalization “COEXIST” movement so prevalent today. Diversity is good; however those striving for peace and harmony with unchecked open boarders may too find real danger lurking with severe consequences.
Profile Image for Gail Baugniet.
Author 11 books177 followers
February 12, 2017
My first 23 years were spent around, on, or in Lake Michigan, one of the "best" of the Great Lakes. How true it is that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, as was proved to the fishing industry on this lake. One time the beaches were so polluted with dead alewives, the smell forced everyone to stay away. My dad loved fishing for trout, coho, and chinook salmon. I have been reading about the Great Lakes all my life, so winning this book in a Goodreads Giveaway was better than winning at the casino.

This book covers anything and everything we should know about these fresh water lakes. People need to be reminded that there isn't that much fresh water on the globe. Invasive species, algae, engineering, and threats to siphon off the water aren't doing the lakes any good.
Profile Image for Pamela Mikita.
269 reviews2 followers
June 3, 2018
Well researched and well written. So interesting, but man, what a freaking bummer of a topic. It reminded me of a quote from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “Natures creative power is far beyond mans instinct of destruction.” What a crock. We have been killing those amazing lakes, knowingly, and because of the almighty dollar they will never be the same. Nature has nothing on us Jules Verne! Our entire water systems are being spoiled in one way or another and we happily chug on. I’m glad I’ll be dead when it all fails. Great book!
Profile Image for Caitlin.
2 reviews6 followers
January 16, 2022
Recommended reading for anyone who lives near the Great Lakes, or really, anywhere in the US. An incredible amount of information about historical and current threats to the Great Lakes specifically, as well as systemic concerns about water supplies across the country (Egan says 3/4 of Americans don’t know where their water comes from). I also appreciate that the author managed to leave readers on a motivating vs. despairing note.
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