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Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Cana­dian Wildlife Staff

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.


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