As a kid growing up in Ottawa, with my family members scattered around Lake Ontario, I can’t tell you how many locks and canals I visited: on school field trips, with day camps, on summer road trips, to a rental cottage on Georgian Bay. I can tell you that every one of them bored me equally – I was not a child who was easily impressed by great works of engineering. From what I remember of the plaques and interpretive panels that decorated each site, they were all about the mechanisms, describing how the big slab doors swing open and the water rushes in, raising boats like an elevator.
None of them mentioned the staggering ecological catastrophe that our grand system of locks and canals has helped to unleash. So I was shocked to read the opening chapter of Dan Egan’s alarming and powerful new book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. Those same dull locks, it turns out, do a lot more than lift pleasure boats up against the downward flow of fresh water seeking the Atlantic. They’re also the conduit for a disastrous series of invasions that have remade the lakes’ ecosystem.
Egan is a Milwaukee-based newspaper reporter (and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist) who’s been covering the Great Lakes, and the abuse they endure at our hands, for several years. His book begins from a clear premise: that the Great Lakes, a relatively young and vulnerable ecosystem, were protected for centuries by natural barriers – the most notable being Niagara Falls. Nothing, whether fish or mammal or man-made machine, could travel upstream, by water, to the upper lakes. But the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway – the culmination of a long-time effort to create a navigable connection between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, effectively making a “fourth coast” in North America – changed all that. And that’s where the trouble began.
What follows is a series of increasingly harrowing chapters about the many invasive species that have since colonized the Great Lakes, riding in on the hulls of Seaway ships or hiding in their ballast water, from sea lampreys and alewives to the insidious zebra and quagga mussels. Each section of the book builds on the next; each invasion knocks out another piece of the Great Lakes’ natural puzzle, enabling the next plague, and so on. In Egan’s telling, even well-intentioned attempts to “fix” the lakes tend, inevitably, to backfire. And the consequences are not just ecological: The book documents the billions of dollars spent by Great Lakes ports to keep tenacious mussels from colonizing and blocking their water-intake pipes, and the fears in those same ports that toxic, even deadly, algae blooms could soon poison the water supply for millions of people.
The book is written from an American perspective, and focused on the American shores of the lakes. But it’s relevant to millions of Canadians, too. Egan is a lively writer who tells each grim story through the eyes of local scientists, fishing enthusiasts, nearby farmers and lake-loving beach-goers. What could be a dense treatise on hydrology and fish biology instead becomes an accessible, even gripping narrative about the massive, unforeseen costs of our interventions in the natural world.
In the final chapters, Egan looks to the future, and to the Great Lakes’ critical role as caretaker to 20 per cent of the surface fresh water in an increasingly parched world. He examines the impact that climate change is having, and he talks to researchers who are engineering new, high-tech interventions in an effort to deal with the invasive mussels and other threats to the ecosystem. In the end, he offers a slim ray of hope – that with a few thoughtful measures, the invasions can be stopped and the lakes given a chance to settle into a new ecological balance. (That slim ray got slimmer, though, this past week, when news broke that the Trump administration may cut up to 97 per cent of the funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.)
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is an engaging, vitally important work of science journalism. A blurb on its book jacket compares it to Silent Spring, the Rachel Carson classic that turned the tide against indiscriminate pesticide use and eventually helped create the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s hoping, for the sake of the Great Lakes and everyone who depends on them, that Egan’s new book inspires similarly tangible results.
Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Whitehorse.Report Typo/Error
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