The Death and Life of The Great Lakes, a book review

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Having lived on the shore of Lake Erie for 20 years, the new book by Dan Egan caught my interest. I was there when the Cuyahoga River caught fire and when the death of Lake Erie was pronounced. I vividly remember, too, not being able to swim in the lake because of an outflow of sewage after summer rains.

But Death and Life of the Great Lakes (DLGL) is about more than being able to swim and more a study of the unintended consequences of human intervention in the vast ecosystem called The Great Lakes, one extended system from the north of Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence River.

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For thousands of years this system was closed and free from invasive species until human alteration: the Erie Canal linking Lake Ontario to the Hudson River and the digging of the Welland Canal to allow shipping around Niagara Falls. Later the direction of Chicago River was changed to send sewage down to the Mississippi instead of into Lake Michigan. These interventions were successful in producing economic prosperity in the Great Lakes region while at the same time they have led to the demise of commercial and sport fishing and ecological disasters.


The culprits are small creatures which hitch a ride on boat hulls from all over the world and even smaller creatures released in ballast water from the same ships. DLGL chronicles the insertion of these invasive species and the laws and other attempts used to rid the lakes of species which prevent native fish from thriving. The vastness of the ecosystem and the multiple legal jurisdictions which regulate it do not make for easy solutions.

Author Dan Egan has spent over 10 years reporting on the Great Lakes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the book is based on his research and experience starting as a kid fishing in Lake Michigan. He covers all of the issues: the politics, the science, the economic consequences and the intangible ethical dilemmas involved. DLGL is a great read for anyone interested in understanding why algae bloom in Lake Erie and not in Lake Superior, why perch and walleye are now so scarce and why creatures not visible to the naked eye can cause an ecosystem to change forever.

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7 Responses to The Death and Life of The Great Lakes, a book review

  1. RJ O’Hara ‘81 says:

    I’ll have to read it. Thanks.

  2. paaron1 says:

    it’s an easy read. Thanks for commenting

  3. Carmon says:

    Hello Paul

    Your blog continues to teach me we have had similar life experiences. The Great Lakes have always been important to me. Toledo was my birth location and for the next twenty-five plus years my family life was always related to all of the Great Lake region. Compared to current times, geography in northern Michigan, for instance, was pristine and we knew even then it would not last. Everyone wanted a cabin on lakefront property never understanding how it damaged every lake north of Toledo to the Michigan Straights.

    For Lake Erie, Big Farm corporations are the primary the cause of the shameful growth of algae in Lake Erie, a pollution problem that has drastically affected drinking water for millions of Ohioans. At the same time, Big Farm has ruined the quality of the land they now use to grow only two crops, soy beans and field corn both exported out of our country. Crop rotation ceased when small farming with proper stewardship became lost to Ohio. My mother was correct when she taught me money is the route of all evil. However, today there are “alternative facts” for those who choose to pollute the water even more.

    Thank you Paul. I will purchase the book you referenced.

    Regards, Carmon

    • paaron1 says:

      Carmon, thanks for following. There is an interesting part about the draining of the wetland which used to be in northwest Ohio and its relationship to the present problems.

      • Carmon says:

        Thank you for your reply.

        Yes, the Black Swamp. Developers, with profit as their primary motive have caused immense serious problems all over Ohio. Today, the value of “swamp lands” is well documented. Cat tails and watercress for instance is a friend of water wherever it exists.

        All that remains of natural habitat along the Maumee Bay area is a narrow strip near the Maumee Bay State Park lodge and it can be viewed walking a raised wood walkway. Also, Magee Marsh retains pristine coastal plants where a great migratory bird sanctuary exist today.

        Little pockets of nature do still exist in Ohio however scarce.

        What I referred to concerning Bad Big Farm and Lake Erie has to do with the Maumee River which flows from Grand Rapids Ohio to Maumee Bay and Lake Erie. Chemical runoff into the Maumee River is the major offender where pollution of drinking water along the lake is concerned and politicians dodge the issue including Senator Sherrad Brown who I write to quite often.

  4. Kathy says:

    Very interesting, I’ll have to read it!

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