02/14/2020

A Last Love Letter To The Great Lakes Book Club

34:05 minutes

a storm brews over an expansive lake
Lake Superior, taken by SciFri producer and Book Club leader Christie Taylor.

illustrated stack of books with text "scifri 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.


illustrated scene of fish in water and mussels in the background. in the center is a bright red salmon, with the words 'there's something in the water' and the logo reading 'science friday'

Join The Club, In Person!

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!


We Remembered Memories Of The Great Lakes’ Natural Wonder

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.

See more stories here.


We Found Out That Birds Are A Little Fishy

a close up of a spotted gar fish
Spotted Gar. They are native to Great Lakes waterways and other water in North America. This one was found in a bayou in Louisiana. Credit: Solomon David

“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.”


We Shared Experiences With Getting Access To Drinking Water

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.

an instagram story screenshot that reads, "currently 60 boil water advisories in ontario. 40 of them are for first nations reserves" an instagram post that reads "lack of transparency about the water distribution processes, procedures and infrastructure age"


We Learned About The Impacts Of Invasive Species

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.


We Discussed Our Hopes And Fears About The Future Of These Bodies Of Water

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.


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Segment Guests

Christie Taylor

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

Donna Kashian is a professor of Biological Sciences at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Peter Annin

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.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior– you have memorized the names of all five Great Lakes, right? Easy to remember them. Homes, H-O-M-E-S, is the acronym, if you have trouble remembering.

The SciFri Book Club has been on a deep dive into these enormous bodies of freshwater for the last month, reading Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. And in that time, we have learned about how invasive species have reshaped the lakes’ ecosystems, shifted fish populations, and on Lake Erie, threatened the drinking water.

So the time has come to close the book on this story– for now. Producer Christie Taylor, captain of the Good Ship Book Club, proud Wisconsonite, is here to do that. Welcome back, Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Happy Valentine’s Day, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I heard you complaining just a moment ago.

IRA FLATOW: I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, well, thank you. So speaking of love, one thing that I’ve loved about this book club is how many people have a beloved memory of the Great Lakes, including our author, Dan Egan’s, dad, Dick Egan.

DICK EGAN: I’m Dick Egan, author Dan Egan’s father. In the book, Dan talks about how big the lakes are 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 three or four years old, I was a sailor and 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.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So Lake Michigan has also been a huge part of my life. Last summer, I was deliriously excited to show it to my partner, the first time they came to Wisconsin to visit my people. But to my disappointment, there was so much fog on the lake that day, that my claim that you can’t even see the other side was kind of impossible to prove. We both admitted the fog was eerily beautiful.

But so we’ve been reading about the struggles of people in the Great Lakes to reduce the harms of nutrient gobbling invasive mussels, restore native fish, and protect the remaining native species from a new invader, the Asian carp.

And in closing The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan himself turns to a beloved memory– his son John catching his first fish on Lake Michigan. It’s a lake trout, one of the species first decimated by the arrival of sea lampreys 100 years ago. In ending the book, Dan chooses to be hopeful. The fish are beginning to eat invasive species. Many people are invested in protecting the lakes. Things could turn out OK.

But what else might happen in the coming years? And what kind of work will sustaining the lakes take from us? Here to talk about that, my guests, Dr. Donna Kashian, professor of Aquatic Ecology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Welcome back, Donna.

DONNA KASHIAN: Hi, Ira and Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And Peter Annin, director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Ecology at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars also. Welcome back, Peter.

PETER ANNIN: Good to be with you.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you both for being back. And listeners, we want to hear from you. What do you see in the future, whether good or bad, for the Great Lakes? Are there laws or changes you want to see? Our number, 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK, or you can tweet us at @scifri. So Peter, Donna, again, welcome back. The first thing, since we’re reading a book, is I want to hear what you thought about the book itself. Was it good, Peter?

PETER ANNIN: Oh, yeah, it’s a great book. I mean, Dan and I have been friends for a long time. And we get together regularly to talk about these wonderful lakes that we love to write about. And there’s a lot of complex scientific and geopolitical things going on, and this massive binational ecosystem, as Ira says, has 20% of all the fresh surface water on the planet.

And the challenge for those of us who are journalists is to help translate that in a way that non-scientific, non-technical people who love the lakes can understand and engage on the policies that impact this ecosystem.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And Donna, what about you? What were your– was there a chapter that you learned the most from, as a scientist?

DONNA KASHIAN: Well, I’ve been doing research on the Great Lakes for 20 years. And I learned a ton from this book. I’m not a fish person, so I learned a lot about fish.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I wasn’t either.

DONNA KASHIAN: But what really captured me the most is essentially the beginning of the book, where it goes into the history of the Great Lakes and ties it to other construction of waterways around the world. I found the history melded into the science fascinating, and he did an amazing job putting it all together, so everyone could love and read about the Great Lakes.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. But things have been changing. I mean, this book was put out in 2016, and things have changed a little bit since then. Peter, you even just had an Op-Ed in The New York Times yesterday about a problem that Dan didn’t get a chance to cover, which is high water levels. Tell us more about that.

PETER ANNIN: Yeah, so we’re seeing a lot of dynamics. And Dan did get into the high water levels. It’s just even gotten more dramatic since his book came out in 2017. So yeah, 2017, we break an all-time high water level record on Lake Ontario. Then we break it again in 2019. Lake Erie last year breaks an all-time high water level of three times, May, June, July. And then the other lakes combined broke total about 10 monthly level records.

And so what we see– and Dan sort of got into this, but it’s just been expanding ever since– we’re seeing a new era of extremes in the Great Lakes region– higher highs, lower lows, longer drought periods or low water level periods, and more rapid rises.

When Lake Ontario broke its all-time high water level record in 2017, the lake shot up more than four vertical feet in six months. That’s an amazing– never risen so far, so fast before. And so that’s what we’re seeing in a lot of conversation about climate change in the Great Lakes these days.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, I was going to ask if we’re tracing all this back to climate change. So what happens when the lake levels vary this much? What happens to the people living alongside the lake, Peter?

PETER ANNIN: Yeah, so the background– and again, this goes back to what Dan did so well in his book– is trying to translate the complexity. So the Great Lakes have always varied naturally significantly over time. The difference between the all-time high, all-time low water level in most of the lakes is more than six vertical feet. That drives humans crazy. They put their pier in or their marina in, and they want water levels to be the same all the time. But the natural ecosystem in the Great Lakes region thrives on that variability.

Now, again, what we see is with these extremes that the ecosystem and the developed structure, infrastructure in the Great Lakes region is being challenged. We have millions of dollars in property damage in the last year in places like Chicago, South Shore of Lake Ontario, all throughout the state of Michigan, Wisconsin, et cetera. So we’ve had several applications for emergency assistance declarations to the federal government from places like Illinois and Wisconsin just in the last 10 days or so.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Donna, as the ecologist in the house, Peter just mentioned that the ecosystems thrive on variability. Is too much variability a bad thing, or where does this come from?

DONNA KASHIAN: Variability really depends on the situation. And what we’re seeing is these huge fluxes in species and water levels in the– they all interplay together. We’ve seen new species come in since the book was written, three new invasive species in the Great Lakes since the conclusion of the book. They haven’t wrecked as much havoc as things like the lamprey or the zebra mussel yet.

But we’re going to continue with climate change and invasive species. These extreme water levels, we’re going to be seeing the system needing to adapt to them. And I do think the Great Lakes are incredibly resilient, but I do think the onslaught of all these things at once are making it very difficult for the lakes to stabilize. I think we’re going to see them start to, but then another insult comes in, whether invasive species and the fluctuations of the water levels is going to be really testing on the system.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What about just warming waters, too? I mean, Dan has a whole chapter about just the temperature changes under climate change as well and how less surface ice in the wintertime, for example. Donna.

DONNA KASHIAN: That one contributes both to water levels, as Dan mentioned in his book, that without the ice cover, we’re not having as much evaporation. And that contributes to the higher water levels. But what we’ve also seen with the new species that came in, Dan speaks a lot about ballast water. Well, the new species that came in since the book have all come into the United States through ballast water. But they’ve been southern species. And they are a species that thrive on warmer water and salinity variances.

And so they have made their way, even though it wasn’t ballast water that brought them into the Great Lakes. It brought them into the country, but not in the Great Lakes. These were southern species. One of them was from rice fields in Louisiana. And suddenly we’re seeing them pop up in the Great Lakes. And so we’re going to see warmer, adapted species occurring more often in the Great Lakes.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So what about those Asian carp, Peter?

PETER ANNIN: Yeah, well, that said, I think, as we’ve talked about the last time, that there have been three– there have been more than 100 native species and non-native species introduced to the Great Lakes. But the three big game changers have been the sea lamprey, the dreissenid mussels, quagga and zebra mussels. Now, you know, the big issue now is Asian carp, which have transformed big sections of the Mississippi River watershed, especially the Illinois River.

The whole ecosystem has been turned on its head. And they’re knocking on the door at the Chicago diversion, which artificially connects the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. And there is a huge fear in the Great Lakes region that those fish could get in, in breeding populations and transform the ecosystem. The most vibrant fishery in the basin is in Lake Erie, $7 billion fishery basin wide. And so this is not just an environmental story. It’s also an economic story of the threat that the carp could pose.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: When we say knocking on the door, and I think, Donna, you’ve been a little bit more pessimistic when you’ve talked about this, but there’s e-DNA evidence that maybe they’re already in the lakes. Donna, how do you how do you feel about where they’re already at, I guess, but also what actually could happen if they get established? Why are they such bad news?

DONNA KASHIAN: We’ve seen two things. We’ve seen the carp on the Lake Michigan sides that are knocking at the door that were getting these hits of e-DNA. And that has been, especially during the time period of the book, a huge focus. But since the book was written, we’ve seen more and more attention has been focused on grass carp, which is another one of the Asian carp, and their potential invasion into Lake Erie.

So we know they’re reproducing in Sandusky and the Maumee River and the tributaries of Lake Erie. We’re seeing fertilized eggs. We’re seeing spawning occurring. And we’re still refusing to commit to say that they are established in these areas right now. And that’s a decision by the Asian Carp Regional Committee to make that designation. They’re still calling it prevention, instead of established.

So I think we’re on the cusp of that designation, seeing we’ve got young and we’ve got reproduction. And once they get in, whether it’s the western side or the eastern side, they’re going to have different things. In my personal opinion, I don’t think they’re going to– in the Great Lakes proper, I don’t think we have the food resources to support the populations in huge numbers.

But what I think is going to happen is they’re going to move into the areas where they do have higher quality food, more and higher quality food in the embayments, like Green Bay, Saginaw Bay, and those areas. And they’re going to wreck havoc in those regions, disrupting the entire ecosystem. And unfortunately, in those embayments, they’re going to move into the tributaries. And in the tributaries, they’re going to be rich in resources. And so they essentially can pose to invade the states, in addition to the Great Lakes proper.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So you’re worried, Donna. Is that fair to say?

DONNA KASHIAN: I am.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. Oh, sorry, Donna, go on.

DONNA KASHIAN: But I do think that like we’re seeing with the zebra mussels and fish adapting to eating them, eventually I will think the system’s resilient. And we will reach some sort of balance. But in the meantime, there’s going to be economic consequences and destruction of the entire food web.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just to remind everyone, I’m Christine Taylor, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about the Great Lakes recovery and what lies in the future. I’m going to take a quick call from– we got Anne in St. Croix, Minnesota. So sorry. Anne, go ahead.

ANNE: Yes, hello. Thank you for having me. My major concern in northern Minnesota is the proposal to have a foreign corporation open a copper sulfide mine, which is in the Lake Superior watershed. It threatens to pollute some of our cleanest water in the world, our cleanest body of beautiful fresh water with acid mine drainage, which is impossible to clean up. So water quality is a key concern in our state as this copper sulfide mine is in the permitting process. So it’s a major national and international concern. Thank you.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks, Anne. Peter, what does the pollution frontier look like for the Great Lakes right now? I mean, we’re no longer in the days of rivers catching on fire, but people are concerned about other potential disasters.

PETER ANNIN: Yeah, well, this mine proposal in northern Minnesota, which has a long, long history of iron mining, and what’s going on there now is this hard rock mine that has a sulfide potential component, is really tearing the community apart in northern Minnesota, both in the Great Lakes watershed and up in the Boundary Waters in the Quetico.

And we’re seeing a lot of mines and mine proposals pop up all around the Great Lakes region, northern Great Lakes, lakes pure watershed on both sides of the international boundary. And I was flying in from Great Lakes states a few years ago. And there was a hearing on this mine in Duluth, and I went to the hearing. And there were 1,000 people in the room.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Wow.

PETER ANNIN: And they had bussed in miners from the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, environmentalists from the Twin Cities. And there were so many people there, you had to take a lottery to ask a question. And so it shows just how emotional this issue is. And it’s really tearing communities apart in northern Minnesota.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And Donna, in your neck of the woods, there are some other things that you’ve been worried about. I know you’ve mentioned pharmaceuticals and microplastics. In a couple of minutes before our break, what’s on your worry list, I guess?

DONNA KASHIAN: I guess increasing just pollution loads in general, we are also seeing increased mining in the UP of Michigan, too. And it’s really hard because these are communities that have a history of mining, and then to bring in different types of mining that cause a different type of pollution. We have PFAS creeping out. They’ve been around for 70 years, but we didn’t acknowledge or understand the impacts from them or understand how distributed they were in the environment.

Theo Colborn, who wrote a book called Our Stolen Future in the ’90s, outlined a bunch of impacts of pollution in the Great Lakes. And one of them that I think we’re going to worry about a lot, in 1998, Lake Ontario, we started to see an intersex fish from chemicals that were endocrine disruptors. And a lot of these compounds are endocrine disruptors.

And they have impacts greater than just mortality and impact reproductive systems, impact the fisheries. They have resulted in pollution, has shut down commercial fisheries around the Great Lakes. Now we’re seeing– we just keep getting new contaminant, a new contaminant identified. And the new ones are nanoparticles not too long ago.

Now we’re hearing a lot about microplastics, which we don’t know the impacts. I know our lab is doing some research. We find them in the fish guts, the stomachs of all of the fish we look at. And we know they impair filter feeding and zebra and quagga mussels, which some people may think of as good. But there’s other species that are filter feeders, and we don’t want to harm those.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I am so sorry. We should definitely get back to that, but I need to cut you off for the moment.

DONNA KASHIAN: Oh, that’s fine.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We have a break we need to take.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we have to take a break. This is great conversation. We’ll be back with more on the future of the Great Lakes with the producer Christie Taylor, journalist Peter Annin, and ecology professor, Dr. Donna Kashian. Our number, 844-724-8255. If you want to phone in, you can also tweet us at @scifri. Tell us about what concerns you about the Great Lakes and reading the book. Lots of interesting stuff to come. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Here with Science Friday Book Club captain Christie Taylor, talking about Dan Egan’s book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, so we’re talking about the future of the Great Lakes after centuries of environmental challenges and change, with our guests Peter Annin, director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Ecology over at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. He’s also the author of The Great Lakes Water Wars– and Dr. Donna Kashian, a professor of Freshwater Ecology at Wayne State University in Detroit.

So we’ve already established that the Great Lakes are pretty well loved by the people who live near them. They’re beautiful. They offer a source of drinking water, food, commerce, and of course, recreation and tourism. And in a country with pretty deep partisan divides right now, it’s noteworthy when something has bipartisan support. The president, for example, has, for the first time in his time in office, suggested increasing the budget for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to $320 million, up from $300 million.

It’s also not just the Great Lakes that people have feelings about, though. On the Science Friday VoxPop app, listeners sent us all kinds of memories of time they have spent with water.

ANDREW: I still get the shivers remembering as an eight-year-old one morning on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, the predawn mists cover the lake, and the dead silence is broken by the eerie, haunting lamenting coal of the lone loon.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks to Andrew from Albuquerque for that submission to the Science Friday VoxPop app. Peter, do you think that there’s a reason why people have this really strong emotional connection to bodies of water? Why are they so charismatic for us?

PETER ANNIN: Well, especially in the Great Lakes, just the magnitude of these water bodies is just really amazing. And most of the people, of course, live in these urban areas, which are heavily developed. And but a huge portion of the watershed is wilderness, especially on the Canadian side. Some of it’s low w wilderness that’s not federally designated, but Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Apostle Islands. And Lake Superior, places like that, are federally designated wilderness.

And these are just magical places to visit, especially during peak seasons. You want to avoid peak bug season, for example. But there’s many, many months when they’re just stunningly beautiful places. And people have formative, sometimes life changing, experiences, or at least, experiences like that person’s anecdote in the Boundary Waters. And they remember that forever. And it’s really, really telling about the power and the magnitude of these globally significant water bodies.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. I want to read a tweet we got from Stacy. She says, my sister is facing $100,000 bill to move her house that’s been there since the ’50s back from the bluff at Lake Michigan, presumably because of erosion and high water levels. And then we also have a call from Madeline in Manistee National Forest. Go ahead, Madeline.

MADELINE: Yes, I wanted to comment that how is this all along. We’re on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. And lately, the winds have been much stronger than usual. Several times a year, we get 60, 65 mile an hour, and occasionally, 90 mile an hour winds. And the homes are falling into the lake along all the way. I know from Holland all the way up the eastern coast. I don’t know whether they are farther down.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Thank you for calling in. So that turns me to a question I had for you, Peter. You wrote an entire book about the Great Lakes Compact, which is this agreement among the Great Lakes governments, basically about who can take water from the lakes, which was supposed to protect against thirsty states taking all the water out of the lakes. With the levels so high, is that really– do you think that’s a legitimate concern right now?

PETER ANNIN: Yeah, I think it will always be a legitimate concern. I don’t think it’s in the interests of the Great Lakes to get people outside the watershed addicted to the water. Because the levels are going to go back down. And again, the natural variability that Donna and I’ve been talking about is really important to the ecosystem. As I said, always has driven humans crazy.

In some cases, some people, whose homes are falling into the lakes, built too close to the shoreline. In other cases, as the caller mentioned, we’re seeing documented higher winds on the Great Lakes. And that is creating a climate change implication. And the question is really, as I said, in The New York Times Op-Ed yesterday, we need to examine each of these cases individually and decide whether spending money to armor the shoreline and kind of hunker down is the right option, or whether it’s time to pull out, or even in some cases, offer to buy some people out and turn that landscape back to the environment.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Donna, well, we have a caller. Marty in San Jose, California, who– you were talking about things getting better or worse for pollution. Marty has a thought on that. Go ahead.

MARTY: Good morning. My senior paper at Tulane was on the lamprey eel, which fortunately has been solved, that problem. And that isn’t my question.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure.

MARTY: I grew up in Cleveland. Lake Erie was highly polluted, mainly from the steel industry. Has the decline and fall of the steel industry– Cleveland, Gary, other places, and for that matter, the coal industry– had a beneficial effect, at least on the Great Lakes, as far as the pollution goes?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks, Marty. Donna, do you have a thought on that?

DONNA KASHIAN: Yeah, I think that’s part of the equation, but we’ve also seen an improvement of laws and the Clean Water Act to help with pollution. We’ve seen organisms come into the lake that can filter the water, and they can actually pull the pollutants out of the water column and deposit them into the sediments, like the zebra mussels. So there’s been a variety of things, but that is one of them.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So you were starting that you were talking about pollutants. Actually, our caller just mentioned the lamprey. Is the lamprey issue solved, or is it just solved for now? Have we figured out how to control these invasive species that we’re already controlling forever?

DONNA KASHIAN: Well, I don’t think we control anything.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: OK.

DONNA KASHIAN: But I do think the– I wouldn’t say it’s solved. It’s reached one of those equilibriums. I think there is still– we’re pouring lots and lots of money– millions probably– I don’t know– into treating lamprey still. So it’s not had a balance on its own. We’re still every year fighting this battle. And they are down to a number that’s what some people consider controlled. But that’s still with human effort and human resources doing that.

IRA FLATOW: We have a tweet coming in from Michael, who says, what are we doing as far as partnership with Canada to take care of this North American treasure?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks, Ira. That’s a good question for Peter.

PETER ANNIN: Yeah, and so there’s several organizations by national organizations. The first one was International Joint Commission in 1908. Then we have the Great Lakes Commission in the ’50s. And then we have the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors Initiative. And then we have the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. So there’s several– all of those are binational organizations that are working very hard to, A, protect the environment, B, ramp up the economy as much as possible, sustainably, without impacts on the environment.

And the Great Lakes region I think is one of the most successful reason in the world that’s working binationally on these issues. And it’s really important because, as we’ve said several times, it’s a binational system. And if we can’t work together, a huge system stretching from Minnesota to New York, Quebec obviously has an official different language in French. And so it’s very complicated at time, but it’s very important. And the entire environmental NGO community is very much binational as well. So I think that’s a real strength of policymaking and thought leadership in the Great Lakes region.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure. I want to go back to some of the sort of future looking things with the science research. Donna, you’re working on one thing we might be able to do with these. So we haven’t really talked about the hazardous algae blooms that happen on Lake Erie that much. But you’re looking at how that algae may actually be connected to possibly controlling quagga mussels in the future.

DONNA KASHIAN: Yeah, we’ve determined that the mussels can actually communicate with the algae, and the algae can communicate back with the mussels.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Wait, what do they say?

DONNA KASHIAN: They’re saying– essentially giving signals to help spawn and to reproduce or not reproduce. And so we’re trying to isolate this compound that is being produced by the algae Microcystis, which is the one that caused the Toledo water shut down a while ago, and pull it out, see if it’s specific to zebra mussels, and use it in another tool to help control them.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So how’s that going? Might we be able to wipe them out completely? Or is this more of a, like, keeping water pipes clear sort of situation?

DONNA KASHIAN: Yeah, there’s pretty much nothing, I think, that you can discharge into the entire Great Lakes. They’re massive. We can’t. So this would be just a tool to help control them, drinking water intakes in small enclosements, and even possibly smaller bodies of water, marinas, and stuff like that, if it works out. Yeah.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: OK, so what’s giving you hope for a more, I guess, balanced ecological future for the lakes? Is it work kind of like yours? Is there other stuff happening that makes you feel good, Donna?

DONNA KASHIAN: Well, this is where you mentioned I can be pessimistic.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. I noticed that last time. I was going to see.

DONNA KASHIAN: I feel like it’s– the lakes I said are resilient. They can bounce back. But we need to control pollution. We need to control inputs. The agricultural industry has so many odd things about it in controlling the nutrient inputs into the lake. And I do think that’s one of the big areas. It’s in policy, that we really need to focus on reducing some of the impacts. That way, the good stuff can take hold.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: To follow up on your comment about agriculture, we have Charlie in Chardon, Ohio, who had a comment about that. Go ahead, Charlie.

CHARLIE: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You’re welcome.

CHARLIE: I work with a company that I won’t name. And basically, my job is to educate farmers around Northeast Ohio on the proper use of chemicals, fertilizers, and things like that. But one of the things I run into and one of the problems I see is education. Because in Northeast Ohio, I mean, everybody knows the effects of phosphorus and everything on the lake. A lot of the farming community doesn’t want, one, believe it.

And two, even in Northeast Ohio, we may have bipartisan support in Congress right now, but there are local politicians and certain parties that will use that as kind of a campaigning tool, where this party wants to attack your farm. Go with the guys that aren’t going to try to take your livelihood away. And that’s not what people are trying to do. But I see educating the farming community on the effects of these fertilizers and pesticides have has got to be crucial to the health of Lake Erie, at least.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks, Charlie. Peter, as a person who lives not on Lake Erie, though, what are you seeing for sort of on a management wishlist for Lake Superior, for Lake Michigan, more on the western side?

PETER ANNIN: Yeah, well, if I could just address that question, actually–

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, go ahead.

PETER ANNIN: When I was at Notre Dame, we did a lot of work in Ohio in the Lake Erie watershed. And so I think the caller is spot on. And so what we have is a lot of non-farmers trying to reach out to farmers and tell them how to do their job. And any sector would have skepticism about that, whether it’s agriculture or aviation or anything else.

And so I think we really need to work hard at a new way of outreach to the agricultural community that’s nonpartisan. A lot of the information they get about how much nutrients are put on their farms comes from fertilizer consultants, who obviously have a great interest and encourage them to apply more. And there’s a sort of situation in the farm sector, where if you put on just a little bit more fertilizer, you have a better sort of like an insurance policy to have a better yield. And often, it’s not needed, and it runs off.

And so, Dan, again, bring it back to Dan’s book, he did an amazing job of covering this Lake Erie algal bloom situation. It is by far the worst water quality situation we have now throughout the Great Lakes region. And we have to get a handle on it. And we have to work in new and better ways, as the caller suggested, to reach out to the agriculture industry in a way that’s not threatening and try to bring them on board in some kind of a win-win situation.

Because obviously, we don’t want to harm their productivity. And the ag sector is really being pinched right now, financially. So it’s a tough time to outreach and have them try and think out of the box. But we have to get our heads wrapped around this for the benefits of the lakes, especially Erie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure, well, and so this is– I’m Christie Taylor, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, again, talking about the Great Lakes. So Peter, I did mention in the intro to this segment that the president has asked to increase the budget of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative this year. Is this a sign the lakes are going to be getting more investment overall? Or I mean, it’s an election year. Is that something that may be influencing this?

PETER ANNIN: Oh, it’s a classic election year thing. So when the president first came in, his budget director proposed cutting this program by 90%. And I actually wrote an Op-Ed in The Chicago Tribune about that way back then. Then the next year he proposed cutting it by 100%. And each time, the bipartisan congressional delegation in the Great Lakes region restored those funds back to $300 million.

And so now what we have for the first time is the president is proposing not only to do that 300, but actually raise it up to 325. Meanwhile, the bipartisan congressional delegation has a proposal on the Hill that’s already passed the House to eventually increase that funding to $475 million. So an election year should be a good year, one way or the other, for the Great Lakes from a funding standpoint. The point is this is a long term investment. And hopefully, there’s the bipartisan coalition on the Hill and elsewhere in Washington can make sure that it is a long term investment.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And that funding, Donna, for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, what is that actually doing? And is it enough? Does your research lab need more money? Do other organizations need more money, too? What’s on your wishlist?

DONNA KASHIAN: Well, I wanted to comment on one thing, in addition to that, too. And although the Great Lakes Protection Fund is getting more money, the Clean Water Act is being cut. So that is another way to protect our water bodies, is through the Clean Water Act. And money that was promised to help with the Asian carp just a couple of weeks ago when Trump was visiting town hall thing in Warren, Michigan, that actually isn’t going forward. So even though some increases, there’s cuts other where else.

What I see with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a lot of the projects that have been funded, there are amazing restoration projects. But there’s no follow through. There’s no assessment. So we get a lot of these projects done to improve wetlands or create habitat. But we’re not going back and seeing if what we’ve done actually worked. So the scientists are screaming for money to help go back and check to see if these are working. And that can improve their science.

But also, the long term monitoring is crucial, that a lot of the projects are not for long term monitoring. And that’s where we’re going to identify the problems and changes in climate change, changes in new invasive species, new pollutants and stuff like that, is through the monitoring, which that has to happen in the GLI.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right, screaming for money. So we’re out of time. I’d like to thank both my guests, Peter Annin, director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Ecology at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, also author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, and Dr. Donna Kashian, a professor of Freshwater Ecology at Wayne State University in Detroit. Thank you, both, so much for joining me today.

PETER ANNIN: You’re welcome.

IRA FLATOW: And thank you, Christie Taylor, for all the work you’ve done on the book and the Great Lakes.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: And if you’re in New York, you can enjoy the book club in person. We’ve got one last time. Next Thursday night, we’re tracing our waterways from the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn straight to Lake Superior, talking to author Dan Egan, and meeting a robotic fish. Ooh, I want to see that. Go to our website, ScienceFriday.com/robofish, to get tickets. That’s next Thursday night. ScienceFriday.com/robofish to get tickets.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

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.

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young is Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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