presentation slide featuring Dan Egan, health of the Great Lakes
HISTORY LESSON: Dan Egan, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, gave a presentation at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus based on his new book, “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.”

Lessons from the Great Lakes

North Star Notes: Protect them from further harm and let them heal.

Growing up in a Great Lakes state, you take water for granted. It’s always been there. It’s plentiful.

Not having it never crosses your mind.

I attended a speech given by Dan Egan, a Milwaukee, Wis., reporter, given at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. Egan gave a presentation based on his new book, “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” I found his talk very interesting, so I bought and read his book. I’m still mulling over the history and facts he presented.

The Great Lakes have served as vital waterways for Native Americans, and eventually European explorers. It was the latter group of inhabitants that envisioned a better commercial waterway that would eventually stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Ontario via the St. Lawrence River.

In the late 1600s, French explorers dug a canal around some rapids near Montreal but quit after being attacked by Native Americans. During the Revolutionary War in 1781, the British army dug a small canal with three locks, parallel to the St. Lawrence and upstream from Montreal, to provide supplies to troop outposts. In the name of progress, there was waterway construction of the Erie Canal (363 inland miles from Albany to Buffalo, linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie) and then the Welland Canal (linking Lakes Erie and Ontario).

From the start, those man-made waterways were not wide or deep enough and continually needed dredging and maintenance. Over time, barges got bigger. Some businesses and shippers envisioned Great Lake cities evolving into international ports with thriving economies — if only they had improved access to the Atlantic. Their answer? Build a bigger and better waterway.

In 1959, the 189-mile St. Lawrence Seaway opened to navigation between Montreal and Lake Ontario. Its system of locks, canals and channels was hailed as one of the most challenging engineering feats in history. However, during planning, seaway architects and administrators nixed locks similar in scale to those in the Panama Canal, figuring they were not needed. That decision has haunted the seaway ever since. Shipping traffic decreased. Today, according to Egan, overseas cargo accounts for 5% or less of its shipping industry.

Fast-forward to today. The St. Lawrence Seaway System marked its 59th navigation season last March and is still considered by many to be an important mode of transportation in the U.S.

The downside of progress
The downside to the seaway and various "improvements" to waterways to connect the Atlantic to the Great Lakes? The introduction of more than 180 invasive and non-native species that have negatively affected the Great Lakes’ freshwater fish and aquatic life.

The first sea lamprey was discovered in Lake Ontario in 1835, believed by some to have arrived via the Erie Canal. The lamprey made its way to Lake Michigan, killing lake trout populations. River herring, also known as alewives, colonized in the Great Lakes. A biologist decided to upgrade the lakes with a predator that he thought would be better than lake trout — plus, this predator would provide some excitement for those who fish.

With the state of Michigan’s blessing, come 1966, the first bucket of coho salmon was dumped into a river flowing into Lake Michigan.

By the late 1980s, the freshwater lakes were invaded by zebra mussels and quagga mussels, believed to come in discharged ballast water from overseas ships. The lakes also host round goby, Eurasian ruffe, spiny waterfleas, fishhook waterfleas, bloody red shrimp and Asian carp, as well as non-native plants such as purple loosestrife and Eurasian milfoil that harm their ecosystem.

It would take several more columns to review efforts and interference by governments and industry at regulating contaminated ballast water, climate-change impacts, the invasive fish species threatening Western states and discussions about piping water to drier regions of the U.S. Egan offers additional information on these topics and more in his book. I suggest you pick up a copy.

The bottom line for me is this: I deeply appreciate the Great Lakes, which hold 20% of the world’s surface freshwater. I tend to agree with Egan’s assessment:

“… Let the lakes heal on their own by protecting them from fresh invasions and allowing the fish, mussels and microorganisms that are already here find a new ecological balance.”

No more human interference. Simply protection.


TAGS: Water
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