In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, reporter Dan Egan dives deep into the shameful past, its precarious present and uncertain future
Lying at the heart of a continent, dug out by glaciers and filled initially with their run-off, the five Great Lakes were safe for 10,000 years. At nearly 200 metres above sea level and 2,000 kilometres inland, the four upper lakes were isolated and self-contained. An entire ecosystem thrived, protected by the towering barrier to all upstream intrusions, Niagara Falls. Behind that impenetrable protection, the world’s largest system of fresh water, including 16,000 kilometres of shoreline, made possible a massive territory of apparently inexhaustible natural abundance and biodiversity, a source of life and treasure for those fortunate enough to live on its shores and in its basins.
This was not the treasure Jacques Cartier was seeking in 1535 when he took his second exploratory voyage up the river we call the St. Lawrence. He was in search of “a vast sea” that would offer clear sailing to China and all the wealth his king could imagine. Just days upstream, at the island now named Montreal, Cartier and his crew were confronted by massive rapids they could not navigate. After failing to circumvent them, the expedition was turned back, though Cartier remained convinced that beyond lay gold and a shortcut to the Orient. He was right about the bounty, though it was animal and vegetable. And he was right about the great body of water upstream; there was a freshwater sea.
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (Norton, 2017), by Milwaukee reporter Dan Egan, offers a rich understanding of these lakes, through history, science and good story-telling. He tells the infuriating litany of their abuse over the past few centuries and ultimately laments their consequent ruination. Well researched and reported, it is not uplifting. It offers a vividly drawn account of some astonishingly bad decisions and unforgivable damage done to an ecosystem on a continental scale. Even the reputed successes, like the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972 and the subsequent (and temporary) recovery of Lake Erie are illusory: today the smallest and shallowest Great Lake is a grotesque imitation of the lake it once was. Egan describes the Great Lake system as being like a series of buckets, each slightly lower than the previous. As they overflow, they drain gently to the next. And so it goes until the overspill reaches the St. Lawrence and makes its way to the sea. A steady, one-way flow meant each lake’s integrity was maintained. That was true for 10,000 years, until 1959, when the St. Lawrence Seaway was opened. There was, says Egan, no better invasive species delivery system possible. Overseas freighters travelling to the centre of the system were “like syringes” to the heart, injecting the devastating invaders and toxins into the core of North America. While the zebra mussel is best known, and its close cousin the quagga even more devastating, these mollusks are only two of the 186 invasive species now occupying the five lakes.
Of course, the invasion of the lakes had begun long before the seaway, as humans intervened repeatedly, first with settlement and agricultural pollution and later with canals and industrial-scale syphoning. But it is when we come to humans’ cavalier attitude to the lakes’ wildlife, its fish stock, that the devastation is both deliberate and routine. When the natural stocks of whitefish, perch and trout were devastated by over-exploitation and increasingly toxic waters, the response was to introduce different species of fish, each in response to a different crisis and each creating the next catastrophe. Egan tells the story of several of the plague-like invaders, from ghoulish lampreys to Hitchcockian alewives to today's imminent threat, Asian carp. It is a depressing saga.
Looking forward, assuming optimistically that we have learned to protect this invaluable asset, there is another, perhaps even greater threat. The growing scarcity of fresh water in the American west and southwest suggests that in the near future, demands that the Great Lakes water be diverted will rise to a clamour. The pressure to divert will be enormous as the shortages grow. That will be just the beginning. Egan demonstrates that just as cheap oil was at the heart of many of the wars of the 20th century, there is a real possibility that fresh water (and its scarcity) will be the cause of mass human conflict and migration in the 21st. Already three-quarters of a billion people are without adequate access to this essential of life. As this number grows — and it is growing now — the fact that Canada is co-steward of 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water should not be a comforting thought. There are rough waters ahead.