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‘Great Lakes’ author Dan Egan answers your questions

We’re never going to get complete control of the Great Lakes, says Dan Egan, who recommends greater humility for what nature can do to restore itself. Egan, author of “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” our April pick for the NewsHour-New York Times book club Now Read This, joins Jeffrey Brown to answer questions from readers, plus Jeff announces our book for May.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now our monthly Now Read This interview.

    That's our book club, in partnership with The New York Times, that so many of you have joined.

    Jeffrey Brown talks with this month's author and announces our pick for May.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's the epic and troubling story of the threats facing the largest source of freshwater in the world and what we can do to stop them.

    The book is "The Death and Life of the Great Lakes."

    And, as we do every month, we have asked you to send in questions.

    Author Dan Egan is here to answer them now.

    And first, Dan, thanks for being part of this for us.

  • Dan Egan:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, Dan, start by telling us a little bit about what you were after here and what threats you were…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Dan Egan:

    I was after telling the story of the lakes.

    And it is a story. And it's a story of these great, grand bodies of water that are vast. They span thousands of square miles. But they were not connected to the outside world aquatically.

    So, they were their own ecosystem. And it didn't take much for stuff to start coming in and unraveling it. And it started with the sea lampreys, and it still going on today with the zebra and quagga mussels.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Those are the invasive species you're talking about.

  • Dan Egan:

    Invasive species that have completely rewired the way energy flows through this, the world's largest freshwater system.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We got a lot of questions about how you came to this, how you researched it.

    As one reader, Candace Hughes, asked, how did you get so many officials to share candidly with you?

    You're a newspaper guy, right? You have been covering this a long time.

  • Dan Egan:

    I am. Yes. The book is really the sum total of about a decade's worth of newspaper reporting work.

    And how I got people to talk candidly, that's just kind of what being a newspaper reporter requires. Would I have been able to write this book in two years if I hadn't done all of this prior research? Not even close.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A big theme here — and everybody of course commented on — the unintended consequences of trying to open up the Great Lakes.

    You tell the history of trying to open it up, and then the introduction of invasive species because of it. So, a lot of people ask how much we have learned about that experience and about reducing the spread of invasive species.

  • Dan Egan:

    That's a great question.

    And I don't know if we have learned enough. There was just a push last week in Congress to pull back Clean Water Act protections for the Great Lakes with regards to invasive species. It got beaten back at the last minute. But we were going to go backwards.

    And I don't know how much we have learned. I don't think people understand what's happened or what could still happen.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, you wrote — when you're writing this kind of a book, getting away from the newspaper, a lot of people wondered, as I did, about your influences, right, because there are some obvious examples, like a Rachel Carson book.

    One writer — one reader, Edwin Lambert of Rockville Centre, New York, asked if you were influenced by Wallace Stegner.

  • Dan Egan:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Dan Egan:

    That's interesting, because I did spend some time out West after college.

    And one of the books that really stuck with me was "The Hundredth Meridian." And the whole — and that's a biography — largely a biography of John Wesley Powell, and how we engineered the water dynamics out there in a way that we're kind of recognizing maybe might not have been the best idea for modern society.

    But, yes, Wallace Stegner, absolutely.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, Barbara Wooden of Westchester, Pennsylvania, but she writes but born and raised on Lake Erie, her bona fides: "You gave us hope that nature will do much to restore the Great Lakes' aquatic life in the future. After all the manmade blunders, do you think we should do less to change the balance of nature in the lakes and let nature resolve the balance, or have we already done too much damage?"

  • Dan Egan:

    I don't know if — we're never going to get back what we lost.

    And I don't think we're ever going to get complete control of the lakes, as we — some people believed we had for a while. I think, if we approach the management with a little more humility and a little more appreciation for what nature can do on its own in terms of finding some sort of equilibrium, we will be better off.

    I don't know if we're there yet.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We have a question from Chuck Monroe of Chicago.

    He asks, "What is the best thing an ordinary citizen like myself can do right now to support the health of the Great Lakes and availability of freshwater for life on Earth?"

  • Dan Egan:

    It's a big question, but there is a deceptively simple answer.

    I think the most important thing you can do is to make sure, if you have children or if you have younger relatives, that they have a relationship with the lake. I live about three blocks from Lake Michigan, and I try to get my kids down there swimming as often as possible.

    I think what happened for a while is a generation or two turned their backs on the lakes, and the lakes suffered, as you would expect. So, I think the most significant thing you can do is to just raise the next generation with an appreciation for what we have.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, take the Great Lakes, but personalize it.

  • Dan Egan:

    Absolutely.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right.

    We're going to continue and have more of our conversation on our Now Read This page.

    But before we end here, let me introduce our book club pick for May. It is the book "Educated" by Tara Westover, a memoir of growing up in a survivalist family in remote Idaho. It's been one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed books of the year.

    We hope you will enjoy it. And we hope you do continue to read along with us in Now Read This, a partnership with The New York Times.

    Dan Egan, for now, thanks for being part of this.

  • Dan Egan:

    Thanks for having me.

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