Art's Reviews > The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
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it was amazing
bookshelves: published-2017, nature, science, read-in-2017, milwaukee, chicago

“This story picks up after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969,” said Dan Egan, speaking to a surprisingly packed, standing-room-only crowd at Milwaukee’s largest indie bookshop on Friday night.

The Cuyahoga River winds through downtown Cleveland before flowing into Lake Erie. Although it caught on fire a dozen times in a hundred years, the blaze of 1969 upset people enough that the incident transformed from an easy joke into the beginning of the Clean Water Act and related environmental action. The Clean Water Act of 1972 reduced the waste going into the lakes. The quick and dramatic recovery since then explains why lakefronts from Milwaukee to Toronto glimmer with sparkling condos and towers, writes Egan.

This readable but thorough study of the Great Lakes uses science journalism to investigate invasive species and water diversion. Egan also conveys the vastness of the Great Lakes. Three percent of the world’s water is fresh, and, within that tiny fraction, the Great Lakes hold twenty percent of the world’s surface freshwater, making it an enviable asset for those outside the protected watershed.

Going way, way back, these five inland seas trace their history to the Ice Age when glaciers receded about twelve thousand years ago, scouring out their basins. A normal lake ripples and may send a two-foot wave, while any one of the Great Lakes can swell to twenty-five feet.

Fast forward to the nineteen fifties when the St Lawrence Seaway opened, which allowed ocean-going vessels to load and unload cargo on the Great Lakes at industrial ports, including Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee. What seemed like a good idea at the time brought with it some invasive species that would hitch a ride in the ballast water and make their homes here, away from their natural predators. Alewives, then lampreys and mussels invaded. Almost two hundred nonnative species live in the Great Lakes, according to Egan.

The St Lawrence Seaway serves as a front door from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes for the invading species, while the Chicago River serves as the back door flowing from Lake Michigan, carrying these unwanted creatures to the Mississippi River drainage system, which serves forty percent of the country.

Environmental issues occupy two-thirds of the book, while other matters close it out. Water diversion, for example. A Great Lakes water compact serves as a high point of regionalism, said Egan on Friday night. “This is one area where we’ve done everything right.” These governors protect the water and carefully weigh requests from those outside the watershed.

While the Great Lakes hold twenty percent of the world’s surface freshwater, twenty percent of the United States population lives in the Great Lakes Megalopolis, stretching from Milwaukee, through Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo as well as Toronto and Montreal in Canada.

I lived most of my life near Lake Michigan, born and raised in Chicago and now living in Milwaukee twelve blocks from the lake. Dad accepted a job in Cleveland during my high school years, so that made me familiar with Lake Erie. A short foray to Carmel during my nomad years put me a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, but soon Lake Michigan called me back home.

This book celebrates and carefully describes the bounty here and its threats.

Milwaukee Public Radio,
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 12, 2017 – Shelved
February 12, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
February 12, 2017 – Shelved as: published-2017
February 12, 2017 – Shelved as: nature
February 12, 2017 – Shelved as: science
March 14, 2017 – Shelved as: read-in-2017
March 14, 2017 – Shelved as: milwaukee
March 14, 2017 – Shelved as: chicago

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