The Death and Life of the Great Lakes - Dan Egan
Like the Great Lakes themselves, Egan’s book is capacious and mesmerizing. He tells us that these five lakes are “essentially one giant, slow-motion river,” where what happens to one part affects the rest. He also reminds us that the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, which spurred the Clean Water Act, was only the last of a string of such fires—the first occurred in 1869. An unnatural as well as a natural history, Egan’s story is a sad and maddening chronicle of folly as we’ve tried to bend this magnificent natural resource to our own purposes. The St. Lawrence Seaway, for instance, built to make the region a world trade hub, opened the Lakes to invasive species when ships emptied their ballast water. From fish to mollusks to algae, the Great Lakes now host some 186 species they were never meant to; especially pernicious are the Asian carp, zebra and quagga mussels “metastasizing” the Lakes. Egan’s explanations of the science at work in this complex eco-system are clear and fascinating. The consequences are unpredictable and ominous: native species die off, water is poisoned, food chains are ravaged. While these problems have been expensive to remedy, so far they haven’t seriously affected ordinary human life. But the Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s freshwater and constitute more than 80% of North America’s surface supply of freshwater. Right now, they seem infinite and indestructible, but as Egan shows so well, they have vulnerabilities and limits that we need to respect, or we face a very thirsty future.