Protecting the Great Lakes Starts with Caring About Them, Author Says

As a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and author of a new, acclaimed book, Dan Egan has been deeply immersed (I suppose the pun is intended) in issues involving the Great Lakes for well over a decade. Few people can talk or write with the depth and breadth he can about a long list of lakes-related subjects, from Asian carp to lake levels to the history of use of the lakes.

But when he was asked on Wednesday, during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School, what people can do as citizens to help the lakes, Egan’s answer was, by his own description, “deceptively simple.”

Sure, get up to speed on the issues. Speak up to politicians and policy makers. But the first thing Egan recommended: “Take your kids swimming at the lake or take them fishing, if you have the means to. Make sure they have a relationship with the lakes so they care about the lakes as they get older.”

“We kind of lost that a bit in the 1960s,” Egan said. He referred to his home town, Green Bay, and his childhood there. “Even today, a kid on a bicycle can’t go to a beach anywhere near Green Bay. There are no sanctioned public swimming areas on the lower bay . . . and that’s a travesty.” He said that when he was a child, he viewed the Fox River, which runs through the city and into Green Bay itself, with disgust. That, too, was a travesty, he said.

Egan spoke at length during the conversation with Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, about issues such as invasive species, the history and impact of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and water levels in the lakes. Underlying all of the discussion was Egan’s passions for the subject and his love for the lakes themselves.

Egan is now senior water policy fellow in Great Lakes journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. He continues to write in-depth pieces for the Journal Sentinel and elsewhere. A current focus, he said, is on phosphorus in the lakes. His book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, published this year, was praised in a New York Times review as “deeply researched and sharply written.” The reviewer said, “In telling what might otherwise be a grim tale, Egan, a two-time Pulitzer finalist, nimbly splices together history, science, reporting and personal experiences into a taut and cautiously hopeful narrative.”

Egan told Gousha and a capacity audience in the Lubar Center at the Law School that he is “pretty optimistic” about the future of the lakes, given what has been learned from past problems and current commitments to protecting the lakes. But he also sounded cautious notes.

“We don’t want to go backwards in terms of protecting the Great Lakes,” he said. “They’ve suffered a lot of damage historically and we know a lot more than we did before. And we have a responsibility to be stewards.”

The one-hour program make be watched by clicking here. For more on Egan’s book, click here.

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