We Need a New Spark: Author Dan Egan Urges Action on Great Lakes Health


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Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Dan Egan recently published The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, and he's hoping that the conversation it produces is as much as a spark as the Cuyahoga River fires were in the nascent environmentalist movement 50 years ago.

He spoke at the City Club of Cleveland today as part of the organization's annual State of the Great Lakes series. Noting that the introductory speakers had more or less taken all of his big marquee topics — the Cuyahoga fires, which Clevelanders are kind of over these days — Egan literally threw the pages of his speech over his shoulder. "I'm just gonna wing it," he said.

He guided the rest of the proceedings to what he called the most important Great Lakes story: the matter of invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, wreaking havoc on the food chain and ecosystem and, ultimately, hurting our water quality. By and large, they've invaded our freshwater region through manmade routes — primarily through salty ballast water from outside the continent or through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, from which Asian carp are currently threatening to enter the lakes.

The solutions to manmade problems like those involve a lot of soul-searching and profound cost-benefit analyses. One questioner balked at the idea of any sort of shipping reforms on the Saint Lawrence Seaway, where massive freighters from across the globe have inadvertently brought our explosion in zebra and quagga mussel populations. But Egan insisted that it's time to take a close look at how much money it would costs governments and private organizations to rethink how we do business vs. how much money the devastation of the Great Lakes might cost us in the future.

It's a difficult issue to tackle when things don't seem so damning and dire right now.

Much like Egan's youth spent along polluted Fox River in Wisconsin and earlier Clevelanders considering the Cuyahoga River with outright suspicion, humans generally just get used to the hand they're dealt. It's called shifting baseline syndrome, and it leads to this tragic cycle that gets in the way of environmental progress. Things are fine enough right now, and that's fine enough to us. The fires in the 1960s ultimately provided at least one spark that led to the Clean Water Act — some sort of galvanizing force that proved to people that things weren't so fine — and now it's time for some new catalyst.

"Toledo, to me, is a flashpoint," Egan said, referencing the 2014 algal bloom crisis that led to the city shutting down its water supply for three days. But as far as the general public discourse goes, the Toledo problem came and went without much introspection. Egan's hoping that his book will help take care of that before it's too late.

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