Dan Egan isn’t sure if his book, “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” has had an impact on lawmakers who might otherwise take protections away from the lakes.
Lakes Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior, which span 94,000 square miles, account for 20 percent of global fresh surface water supply.
But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter whose book is being read all over the UW-Madison campus this year as the community Go Big Read selection, has seen some positive signs, at least in terms of public awareness.
It’s important for people to “understand the majesty” of the lakes, Egan, 51, said in a recent phone interview as he rode his bike to a quiet apartment that overlooks Lake Michigan where he’s working on a new book about phosphorus.
“There’s nothing like them on earth,” he said. “They’re kind of like the Himalayas of water. We abused them for so long and I think we did that because they were so big and we thought that they were just invulnerable and we’ve learned from that, I hope.”
Last spring, the Trump administration was looking at pulling back some Clean Water Act protections for the Great Lakes in terms of invasive species. And with a push from his boss at the Journal Sentinel, Egan and his colleagues wrote three or four stories a day during the week it was being debated.
The measure got beat back at the last minute. “I would never claim that we did it, but we didn’t hurt that cause. And I think that was important because the last thing we need right now is to go backwards in terms of Clean Water Act protection for the Great Lakes.”
In May, the administration also threatened to slash $300 million in federal spending on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an effort started in 2010 to protect and restore the Great Lakes.
“The Trump administration just wanted to zero that out. And what the administration doesn’t understand, or didn’t understand, is that clean Great Lakes, it’s not a partisan issue. (The administration) is gonna lose a lot of support on both sides if you start rolling things backwards.”
Egan put 10 years of his Great Lakes newspaper coverage into “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” which came out last year. Egan, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, has been amazed and humbled by its success.
After the book’s paperback release in April, it climbed to the No. 7 spot on The New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list. That same month, it was selected for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This.”
Due to its Go Big Read status, the book has almost 600 holds on it in the Madison Public Library system.
Egan will give a talk about his book Tuesday at the Union Theater. His hope is to raise what he likes to call “Great Lakes literacy” — “just basic knowledge about where the lakes came from and how they function and how they are connected to the sea artificially and how they flow.”
In the book, the first-time author describes how those charged with enforcing the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972 “did unfathomable damage to the lakes.” Regulators allowed freighters that entered the lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway from international waters to dump their ballast water discharge in the lakes.
“It would be hard to design a better invasive species delivery system than the Great Lakes overseas freighter,” Egan writes.
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The Great Lakes are now home to 186 nonnative species, Egan reports. None are more devastating than the “Junior Mint-sized zebra and quagga mussels,” he said of the ever-changing number.
The mollusks, native to the Black and Caspian Seas, sucked up 90 percent of the lake’s phytoplankton. They made the water three times clearer, but clarity doesn’t signify a healthy lake. ‘’It’s the sign of a lake having the life sucked out of it,’’ Egan writes.
Moira Harrington, assistant director for communications for Wisconsin Sea Grant and the University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institutes, said most people don’t really understand what happens beneath the water.
Sea Grant has been supplying additional information for the Go Big Read event and has been involved with research outreach education on the Great Lakes for more than 50 years.
Egan’s reporting promotes an understanding of Lake Michigan, the fifth largest lake in the world, Harrington said. The lake has a long cultural history and provides not only recreation, but also economic prosperity for Wisconsin.
Aquatic invasive species are the latest blow to the lakes, she said. Before that, it was overfishing and pollution. Still, with all the challenges to the lakes, Harrington and Egan are both hopeful.
That the book has been chosen as the Go Big Read book for the 2018-19 academic year gives lake protection a great platform, Harrington said. UW-Madison’s common reading program is now in its 10th year.
Didn’t set out to write a book
Egan said he didn’t set out to write a book. He was happy just being a reporter in Milwaukee covering the Great Lakes. He had a full time job, four school-age children, and a wife who works, so it wasn’t like he had a ton of extra time.
But in the 2011-12 academic year, he did a fellowship at Columbia University in New York that was also a masters program. While studying science and environmental writing, he took a book-writing class in which he had to put together a book proposal. “I didn’t think it would really go anywhere,” he said.
Basically, he just wanted a break from the newspaper, so he, his wife and his children spent a year living in the Bronx.
When he was a child in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Great Lakes were compromised by industrial pollutants, but that was turned around, and now the issue is biological pollution. And it’s an issue that should alarm people in Madison, Egan said.
“What happens in Lake Michigan matters to people in Madison because these invasions, almost inevitably it seems, make their way inland,” he said. “And that’s why you’ve got zebra mussels in Lake Mendota and you’ve got spiny water fleas.”
Jim Hurley, Sea Grant’s director, who got his doctorate in water chemistry from UW-Madison, calls Egan a great storyteller. “We need to do a better job of science outreach and I think Dan’s book is spot on for the problems associated with the Great Lakes.”
Like Harrington, Hurley is thrilled that so many on campus are reading the book. Much of the time, people in Madison concentrate just on the lakes of the Madison area, but just 80 miles to the east is one of the “most precious bodies of water in the world,” Hurley said.