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Threats To The Great Lakes, From EPA Cuts To Zebra Mussels

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Great Lakes

An image of the Great Lakes captured by NASA on March 28, 2011.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Great Lakes contain 21 percent of the world's supply of surface freshwater, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Author Dan Egan puts it another way: “One out of every five gallons available on the planet.”

Egan, a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and author of The Death And Life Of The Great Lakes, spoke with Morning Shift’s Tony Sarabia about what the future holds for the Great Lakes.

On President Trump’s proposed cuts to the EPA

Tony Sarabia: The release of your book coincides with a proposed budget released by the Trump administration. He’s proposing a 31 percent decrease in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. If those cuts happen, what impact do you think that will have on anything related to the Great Lakes?

Dan Egan: Well, it could be significant. Beyond this agency-wide cut, they’re talking specifically about getting rid of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which is similar to ecosystem restoration programs for the Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Everglades. Right now, I believe the current funding (for the initiative) is somewhere around $300 million a year, and they’re proposing eliminating it. This program addresses a lot of the things that are ailing the lakes. It funds cleanup of some of these toxic sediments in harbors all around the lakes. ... This program has been going on since 2010 and it’s done a lot of good work with wetland restoration, with research to combat invasive species. So if this goes away the lakes may take a step backwards. 

On the threat of invasive species caused by ballast water

Egan: More significantly, I think, is that idea the EPA could be somewhat emasculated at a time when the Great Lakes needs all the EPA can do for it. And I’m specifically talking about ballast water. … (Ballast Water) is held in tanks on these giant ocean-going freighters to balance a ship on the open seas if it doesn’t have a full cargo load or if it’s an unbalanced cargo load. And that water can be picked up at any port, anywhere in the world, and when the boat gets here and picks up its cargo, it discharges that ballast. The problem is that weight, that ballast water, is anything but dead weight. It can contain DNA.

Sarabia: Is (ballast water) the center of the issue for the most part with invasive species that we’ve seen introduced in the lake recently?

Egan: Since the seaway opened we’ve had dozens of invasive species brought in by these freighters and they’ve been devastating. They include zebra mussels, and quagga mussels and round gobies, spinning water fleas. There is 50-some species I believe that were introduced — believed to be introduced — by contaminated ballast water.

On the continual need to adapt

Sarabia: Is the key that we have to realize we need to be in flux — that we need to keep adapting — because of the way things are changing more rapidly than they were 10,000 years ago?

Egan: Yeah. I agree with that. I think the important thing to remember too is nature is in control here, for good and ill. The title of the book is “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” not “The Life and Death of the Great Lakes” because nobody is saying the Great Lakes are dying. But they’ve undergone a dramatic change in the past and they’re undergoing dramatic change right now. But there are encouraging signs, particularly on Lake Huron, we’re seeing native species surge and they’re doing it on the back of invasive mussels, and more specifically invasive gobies. Gobies came from the same place as these invasive mussels — the Caspian Sea basin — and they came the same way — ballast water — and gobies are evolutionarily built to eat mussels and now our native species are adapting to eat gobies. So the top of the food chain’s kind of stitching itself back together — and I’m talking specifically about Lake Huron. The bottom of the food chain may look a little bit more like the Caspian Sea than the historic Great Lakes, but nature’s finding a balance.

Sarabia: Would you describe Lake Michigan as a healthy ecosystem compared to the other Great Lakes?

Egan: Back in the sixties they were saying Lake Erie was dying. Lake Erie wasn’t dying. If anything it was suffering from too much life with these algae outbreaks. And Lake Michigan and none of the Great Lakes are dying, they’re just changing, rapidly.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.

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