A Last Love Letter To The Great Lakes Book Club
This story is a part of our winter Book Club conversation about Dan Egan’s book ‘The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.’ Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or record a voice message on the Science Friday VoxPop app.
The on-air discussion may be wrapping up, but it’s not too late to dive into the SciFri Book Club festivities. Join local researchers and author Dan Egan on February 20 in New York City for There’s Something In The Water, a live event!
The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s surface drinking water, with Lake Superior holding half of that alone. The lakes stretch from New York to Minnesota, and cover a surface area of nearly 100,000 square miles—large enough to cover the entire state of Colorado.
And they’re teeming with life. Fish, phytoplankton, birds, even butterflies call the lakes home for some portion of their lives. But not all is calm in the waters. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan tells the story of the changes that have unbalanced these ecosystems since the St. Lawrence Seaway was first made navigable for cargo ships and, with them, invasive species, like sea lampreys, alewives, quagga mussels and, perhaps soon, Asian carp.
The Science Friday Book Club has spent a month swimming in Great Lakes science. We’ve pondered the value of native fish to ecosystem resiliency, the threats facing people’s access to clean drinking water, and the influence of invasive species. SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor, Wayne State University ecologist Donna Kashian, and Wisconsin-based journalist Peter Annin discuss potential paths to a healthy future, from ongoing restoration efforts to protective policies and new research.
Throughout the Book Club, we learned and shared stories about the Great Lakes and beyond. Explore below!
Kayaking through a snow globe of stars. Marveling at migrating monarch butterflies. Listening to a lamenting lone loon. On social media and the SciFri VoxPop app, you told us some of your favorite memories of the Great Lakes—love letters to these natural wonders.
Here’s book author Dan Egan’s father, Dick Egan, delivering his memory of the Great Lakes:
I’m Dick Egan, author Dan Egan’s father. In the book, Dan talks about how big the lakes and how it’s really hard for anyone who doesn’t live around or near them or has never seen them to imagine the size. When Dan was about 3 or 4 years old, I was a sailor. I was just learning to sail, and we were sailing across Green Bay from the Door County Peninsula in Wisconsin to upper Michigan. We encountered a very, very large storm—huge waves. My wife was hollering at me, everything was bouncing around, and we wondered where Dan was. He was down in the cabin lying fast asleep. That was a great memory of the lakes for me.
“If we think about the tree of life, all the vertebrates are on a particular branch, and fishes, certain types of fishes, branched off, and then birds went another direction. But really, when we think about it scientifically speaking, they’re all part of the same group that we would actually call fish,” explains fish ecologist Solomon David in our Book Club interview on native fish.
“The bird people like to say that birds are cool because they’re dinosaurs, but really they’re all fish. I think it shows that we can all get along, and think that biodiversity is really cool.”
Millions rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. But clean, safe drinking water isn’t always available. Between 2016 and 2019, almost 130 million people in the U.S. received their drinking water from a system that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act—the federal law meant to protect drinking water. Of those 130 million, about 44 million people received water from systems that violated a health-based standard, says Kristi Pullen Fedinick, director of science and data at the Natural Resources Defense Council who helped analyze the data. The report also found a strong connection that communities that are poorer or dominated by people of color are being hit the hardest.
“When we did look at the national data, we found that race really had the strongest relationship to slow and ineffective enforcement of that federal drinking water law across all communities.”
You shared some of your stories and concerns about drinking water access.
From quagga mussels to blood-sucking sea lampreys, invasive species have altered the Great Lakes’ ecosystems. We learned about non-natives and the role they play in environments everywhere. Here are some of your stories.
Cheatgrass in the mountain west. It dries up early in the season and is fuel for wildfires. Plus, the little seed heads are terrible for pets–they burrow into paws, eyes, ears, nostrils, etc.
— Laura McLain (@LauraK9doc) January 28, 2020
Round goby, Asian carp, zebra mussels in the water. Purple loosestrife, Eurasian buckthorn, garlic mustard, honey suckle, wild parsnip on land. Just to name a few. pic.twitter.com/DRIrqsHgrD
— Jeff Grant (@jeffgrant21) January 31, 2020
My biggest fear? The current walkback of EPA regulations that keep the water clean. The current administration seems determined to muck up our water, our air, and our food, and our Senate won’t do a thing about it.
— [+] Mysticrose276🌹 (@Patra56) February 6, 2020
Donna Kashian, SciFri Book Club reader and biology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan on the SciFri VoxPop App
What I have learned from this book is that despite the continued onslaught of offenses against the Great Lakes, the lakes continue on. They seem to hit new balances or equilibriums despite the fact that they are much changed and less stable than they were 40 years ago. For the future, I fear a threat that they may not be able to overcome would be water withdrawals. And with climate change and droughts out west, there will be more and more pressure to remove water from its basin. They will not recover from this.
Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
Donna Kashian is a professor of Biological Sciences at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.
Peter Annin is author of The Great Lakes Water Wars (2006) and director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.