New book examines "Death and Life" of Great Lakes

Mar 24, 2017

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Egan has covered Great Lakes issues for 15 years.  This month, he released his first bookThe Death and Life of the Great Lakes, an in-depth biography of the lakes – from the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to the current issues with harmful algae blooms and invasive species.


We talked to Egan about the book and his thoughts on the role it can play in 2017. (Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Tell me about your connection to the Great Lakes.

I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and spent a lot of time on the water as a kid.  Not all of my memories of that water are pleasant, because I was born in 1967.  I spent my childhood around the banks of the Fox River, which is a heavily industrialized river running through the heart of Green Bay.  That used to upset my parents, not because they thought I was going to drown but because they thought it was too filthy to mess around with. It was kind of like playing at the dump.

Just about an hour north of Green Bay, the water was really clean and safe and fishable and swimmable. Both sets of my grandparents had cottages on the Door Peninsula on northern Green Bay. so I took away from my childhood a lot of fond memories of the Great Lakes.

How did you go from all of this reporting on the Great Lakes to wanting to write a book about the Great Lakes?

That’s assuming I wanted to write a book about the Great Lakes.  That changed a few years back when I took a leave of absence from the paper to do a fellowship at Columbia University.  Part of that program included a book-writing seminar, and writing a book proposal was a part of that.  I looked at all these projects I had done for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over a decade or so -- I would do one big project a year, and they all kind of stacked up like potential chapters.  I was just trying to pass a class in putting together this book proposal.

There were 16 students in the classroom.  I don’t think any of them were from the Great Lakes Basin. There was a lot of discussion about what we were pursuing, and every time I started telling Great Lakes stories, they just became rapt.  It was really eye-opening to me, because of what we take for granted here -- the story of the Great Lakes.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Credit W.W. Norton & Company

The book is in three parts: The Front Door, The Back Door, and The Future.  Could you break those down?

This front door/back door theme really did help organize the issues in my mind. The first third of the book is largely talking about how we opened the Great Lakes to the rest of the world.  The back door section deals initially with how we opened the back door of the Great Lakes to the rest of the continent -- and that was by punching through the Subcontinental Divide that separates the waters of the Great Lakes from the waters of the Mississippi Basin at Chicago with the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the solutions that brought.   

Would you say invasives are the biggest threat facing the Great Lakes?

I think so. We’ve learned how to deal with traditional pollution post-Cuyahoga [River]. The Clean Water Act has done a remarkable job of throttling industrial excrements. We can effectively plug a pipe or cap a smoke stack, or at least learn how to reduce the emissions coming out to the point where waters can be returned to a healthy, vibrant state.  But invasive species are often referred to as biological pollution. It is pollution, but it doesn't decay or disperse like traditional pollutants.  We can’t really get a handle on it because it breeds. 

With all of the news of Trump’s proposed budget cuts (especially to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative), do you think your book serves as a warning for what might happen if the Great Lakes lose funding?

It could, but it’s also more than dollars -- or lack of dollars -- that are a threat to the lakes. It’s lack of rules, laws, and regulations.  I've heard the president say for every regulation we're going to get rid of two regulations, so if [the administration is] going to emasculate the EPA or if it's going to take the teeth out of the agency, that's a big problem too.  This is all a coincidence [Trump’s budget blueprint release] happened around the same week that the book came out.

My biggest idea in writing this book was to give people a Great Lakes literacy. To not tell the whole history of the lakes, and not tell every issue facing the lakes, but just to have a survey of what I see as the important, critical issues facing them.  If people become aware of what the problems are and what’s causing them, hopefully that will spur them to demand fixes.

Do you think your book will raise the profile of the Great Lakes nationally?

That was the intent -- and that wasn't even really my idea.  I didn't have the same vision for the book that the editor, the agent, and the people in New York did. I think that's because they were looking at these issues that I presented in my book proposal with a completely new set of eyes.  They were interested, and flabbergasted, and alarmed. just saw it as a very compelling story.