Dan Egan | Combating and Adapting to Climate Change
“What happens in Duluth matters in Toronto and in Milwaukee and in Chicago.” Dan Egan has spent more than 20 years writing about the Great Lakes. One thing he’s clear about: it’s all connected. In this episode, the longtime environmental reporter and best-selling author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes highlights the greatest challenges and even greater opportunities for combating and adapting to climate change.
[00:00:00] Dan: Everybody has the fear that people are going to come calling for the great lakes water, and we’re going to just siphon it away. So the desert can continue to unnaturally bloom. But I think if you want to be optimistic rather than moving water to people, let’s move people to water for a sustainable future based on this central resource that just happens to be here in spades.
[00:00:25] And to tease out what’s climate and what’s not, I don’t think we even have to, we just have to like acknowledge that things are not going to be as predictable as they were and adapt accordingly.
[00:00:37] Amy: From the Great Lakes Protection Fund, you’re listening to Great Lakes Great Stories, a six-part daily series celebrating the journalistic leaders of the Great Lakes region. I’m Amy Elledge.
[00:00:48] Steve: I’m Steve Cole. The outstanding storytellers featured on this podcast discuss their insight, influences, and inspirations for telling compelling and impactful stories about the Great Lakes—stories that earned each of them a Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award for Communications Excellence.
[00:01:06] Amy: And we’ll hear about the challenges they see on the horizon for the Great Lakes region. Today on the show we have Dan Egan, award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. In it, he weaves together a decade of stories about the history and science of the region to explain how our once devastated ecosystem is making a comeback.
Dan is also well known for his environmental and Great Lakes coverage for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His features consistently covered top tier threats to the Great Lakes and highlighted the region’s response and solutions.
A quick note about this episode, Dan briefly mentions a New York Times article that he was writing when we were recording. The article was published on July 7th, 2021. And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. There’s a link to it in the show notes, or you can find it by searching for Dan Egan at newyorktimes.com. Now let’s hear Dan talk about how he tells stories about the Great Lakes. Hi Dan, thanks for joining us.
[00:02:03] Dan: Thanks for having me.
Steve: Dan. Congratulations on the 2020 leadership award.
Dan: I really appreciate it. It was a great honor.
Steve: Can you tell us a little bit more about your work for the Journal Sentinel?
[00:02:13] Dan: I had been a reporter there since 2003, and I haven’t been in the newsroom much for the last 10 years. And so for the last several years, I had been a fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee School of Freshwater Science, specifically their Center for Water Policy.
And I still am. So I’m still doing the journalism that I was. It’s just no longer going to be in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. For example, right now I’m working on a very long project for the New York Times on climate change and the Great Lakes, and specifically how Chicago is exposed to some issues that a lot of other cities aren’t.
And I’m working on another book. But the work that I think we want to talk about is the Great Lakes stuff. And that started in 2003, and I was hired by the Milwaukee newspaper to be a feature writer. And I grew up in Green Bay and I was just supposed to write features and then they just kept writing features about the Great Lakes and it quickly evolved into a beat that lasted from 2003 to a couple of months ago.
[00:03:13] Steve: How had that beat changed over time? So you were doing that for roughly 20 years. So how did it evolve?
[00:03:17] Dan: In newspaper parlance we called it a beat just because we didn’t know what else to call it. I started out just writing fairly simple stories and they just got more and more complex. And pretty soon I was magazine writer for the newspaper and because of the flexibility and creativity and enthusiasm of the editors there, I think they made it work.But the way things are heading these days, a lot of newspapers just can’t support that kind of work anymore.
[00:03:46] Amy: Dan, let me ask you to talk a little bit more about your origin story. How did you get into journalism in the first place?
[00:03:54] Dan: I had an uncle who ran the Sioux Evening News up in Sioux St. Marie. I never worked there, but I always thought that looked like an interesting job.
And so he suggested when I graduated from college with a degree in history that if you want to be a journalist, you can do a couple of things. You can go to journalism school, or you can go work at a small paper and learn it on the fly. So I took a second piece of advice and got a job at the Idaho Mountain Express in Sun Valley, Idaho.
It was a weekly newspaper, still is, and you learn everything. And it just so happens that central Idaho was, it still is really a hotbed for some really interesting environmental issues. And I’m talking about Snake River salmon and efforts to restore them, wolf reintroduction, grizzly bear reintroduction.
I started working there in 1992 and all this stuff was just starting to pop. And I was baptized in intensive coverage of that stuff. And that stuck with me. I went from Sun Valley, Idaho to the eastern part of Idaho, Idaho Falls, which isn’t far from Yellowstone. And, um, worked there for a few years, covering environmental issues.
And then I went down to Salt Lake City and worked at the Salt Lake Tribune as a education reporter at first, and then eventually I was a general assignment reporter with a fair amount of coverage of environmental issues. When I came back to my home state, I grew up in Green Bay when I came back and started to learn about the origin story of the salmon in the Great Lakes that just got me launched this Great Lakes odyssey.
[00:05:24] Amy: Did you have a mentor at an early age?
[00:05:27] Dan: Only in as much as the newspapers are mentoring machines, that’s the way they’re designed. You bring me reporters and the old reporters train them in the ways and the hows. There’s mentoring just built into the system. So I didn’t really have a writing mentor or anything.
Well except for you have editors. And that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re saying don’t do this. This is how we do it. So I benefited from that. And then there was a professor, two professors on at Columbia. One, Jonathan Weiner helped me write my thesis, which turned out to be a long magazine style piece on the Chicago River, Asian carp and the emergence of eDNA surveillance testing—sifting the water for DNA to see if the carp have invaded or not. And so, uh, Jonathan Weiner really helped me whip that thesis into shape, which fairly easily converted into a chapter of the book. And then, uh, Sam Freedman was the book writing seminar professor, and he really helped me see this work as a potential book.
I was writing for a regional audience and he said, this is a really interesting story. It’s a national story. And you’ve got to approach it from that perspective which I don’t think I had the tools to do on my own, or it would have taken me a long time to get there. And so I would say those two guys helped me out a lot specifically with getting The Death and Life of the Great Lakes book put together.
[00:06:51] Amy: What are you seeing in the next generation of Great Lakes storytellers? How do you think we can support that next generation and help them grow?
[00:07:00] Dan: I’m 53 and just working on the story right now with the New York Times. And you know, it’s no longer a word story when it comes to a lot of journalism. It’s just on multimedia extravaganza and it’s goes way over my head, what they’re doing graphically and everything.
We’re storytelling in a way that I’m not familiar with. I think there’s reason to be optimistic about another generation of storytellers coming up with, you know, a toolbox that previous generations didn’t have. The question is who’s going to pay them? And that’s what I think about when I think about the future of environmental journalism or Great Lakes journalism, who’s going to fund it?
I sometimes think a high country news for the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes country news, or something. You get a stable of 10 or 12 reporters and well that’d be a lot, but you also get a bunch of freelancers and some good editors. And you could, I think build very interesting product because what happens in Duluth matters in Toronto and in Milwaukee and in Chicago.
And so that may be a future. When I think about the future of long form environmental journalism.
[00:08:08] Amy: That’s a really great idea.
Steve: It really is.
Dan: Let’s do it.
Steve: Let’s do that. Okay.
Amy: I’ll call you later.
Dan: I know some guys.
[00:08:15] Steve: I imagine you probably do. So you have a couple of decades under your belt now as a journalist in the Great Lakes. And clearly you have a lot of passion for what you’re doing. Can you talk about what keeps it fresh for you? What gets you inspired?
[00:08:29] Dan: I really enjoyed going into work. On a certain level it’s a job. And luckily it’s an interesting job so it doesn’t take a lot to stay motivated in that respect. But you don’t get the satisfaction doing these long form pieces or books that you do from just going into a newspaper. Eight in the morning and you don’t know what you’re going to do and you leave at five and you’ll see what you did that day the next day on your front doorstep. There was built in motivation every day there. This takes more of a longer form commitment. And I signed a contract for a publisher to write a book so that’s my motive right now. Luckily it’s hopefully going to be an interesting book. That’s I guess the key thing is to just find stuff that’s interesting and the motivation takes care of itself.
[00:09:10] Steve: And I think this was in the video that you shot with us as we were announcing the leadership awards last year. You talked about political will and how political will is essential to enabling or creating lasting change. Can you connect storytelling that you do to that political will for us?
[00:09:26] Dan: I think that as a journalist, you’ve got to know what your responsibility is and where it ends. And in that respect, I try not to worry about the political consequences or lack thereof of the work I do. Three or four years ago I write a long story for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about say the Asian carp being detected in the Chicago area waterways. People reach out to me and they’re like, what can I do? And then – You read the story now you know as much as I do now really what’s happens next is common sense. I’m not there to advocate to join this environmental group or bend this representative’s ear in this fashion. My response is you just did the heavy lift there by getting informed and now do what would come naturally. Write your representative or find some environmental groups that are spending some time on some issues that you’re now more aware of and are interested in seeing resolved.
[00:10:17] Steve: We’re looking across your 20 year arc of working in the space. What are the new challenges do you think have emerged recently?
[00:10:23] Dan: I would say climate change, and phosphorous and nutrient loading are the two big issues. And I’m thinking all about invasive species and that still is an issue, but you know, they’re going to be doing their annual, um, algal blooms forecast for Lake Erie. The fact that this has become an annual event, that’s telling that this has become such a fixture in the Great Lakes region that it’s predictable as foliage, but not nearly as pretty.
And then the next logical question would be well, what do we do about it? I guess we just get into a new frame of mind where we’ve got to be flexible and to no longer assume that talking about, say Lake Michigan and Huron specifically, they’re going to stay bracketed to the historic high and low that we’ve seen since the records started being kept from the eighteen hundreds, just the whole Chicago area waterway system is premised on this idea that Lake Michigan will stay in its place.
For example in 2020, in May, you guys may remember. There was a huge storm and the tunnels and reservoirs did their job, first storm, and caught a lot of it. But then the next storm hit and they were already holding water. And so it was going straight into the river and the river started swelling. And as it’s always been since those navigation locks went in near Navy pier in the 1930s. If things get bad enough in the river as a last resort, you can open up those gates and let all that waste and sewage water go out into Lake Michigan. Nobody likes that, but more than that, they don’t like it in their basements or on city streets.
In May of 2020, it was a remarkable moment because they have a threshold for when they reverse the river. The river’s normally at minus two or three feet and when it gets to plus three and a half feet, they open the gates and let it flow backwards into Lake Michigan. Well they couldn’t do that in May of 2020 because the lake was so high. So by the time the river started flooding, there was no option to alleviate that with opening of the gates, because you just would have sent Lake Michigan into downtown Chicago. That’s why, I don’t know if you remember, but Lower Wacker, people were being rescued on Zodiac rafts.
[00:12:25] Steve: I do remember.
[00:12:25] Dan: Part of the Willis Tower went out all the way up to the upper tenants. Riverwalk was not a walk. And so it doesn’t take a great imagination to put another foot of water there. The other thing with phosphorus is the leverage you can pull, I guess, is start rethinking how we use our crop lands. The whole ethanol policy, that’s an obvious place to start. And then the other thing is to recognize manure for what it is. And it’s not just a nutrient, it’s a waste of very potent waste and we are recklessly spreading it in watersheds that can’t handle that. And that’s why we’re seeing blue waters turn brilliant green in the western Lake Erie basin.
They’re adding factory farms. Everybody who knows the issue knows that there needs to be a reduction. So it doesn’t make any sense other than to the people who are benefiting from it. And that’s a relatively few number of people compared to the 30 or 40 million people in the Great Lakes basin who, they own Lake Erie.
[00:13:20] Steve: There’s a major water crisis evolving in the western states now. How do you think that’ll affect the way people around the Great Lakes think about the lakes and the water in the lakes?
[00:13:31] Dan: We do have the Great Lakes Compact, which I think has been in place since 2008. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but I think it holds water, if you will.
And I think it’s so far worked to prevent large scale diversions out of the Great Lakes basin. But a lot of times when I’m thinking about water in the west, I think, well, the problem is, is maybe we shouldn’t be growing stuff out there and we should grow stuff where it grows and then we shouldn’t grow it as fuel for cars, but it’s food for humans. Everybody has the fear that people are going to come calling for the Great Lakes water, and we’re going to just siphon it away so the desert can continue to unnaturally bloom. But I think if you want to be optimistic rather than moving water to people, let’s move people to water for a sustainable future based on this essential resource that just happens to be here in spades. We’ve got plenty of fresh water and we’ve got too much fresh water sometimes. And so to tease out what’s climate and what’s not, I don’t think we even have to, we just have to acknowledge that things are not going to be as predictable as they were and adapt.
I don’t see big pipelines out west as the answer, but I could see, you know, the story I’m working on right now. Start with the idea that Chicago on a map looks like one of the best places to be in the ever warming 21st century. It’s half a continent from the coasts. It’s pretty far north, and it’s sitting on the edge of the largest expanse of fresh water on the globe.
But unlike the oceans, the Great Lakes are really fickle and we need them to be where they’ve been for the last 200 years, which is just a blink of the eye. There was a study done some decades ago probably now, but they were radio carbon dating the beaches, the ancient beaches and 4,500 years ago, Lake Michigan was nine feet higher than its long-term average. That there were humans living on the edge of a lake, a very bloated lake. And if that lake were to return, Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago. I would be dramatically different.
[00:15:28] Amy: So let’s just switch gears a little bit. And I’d like to ask you about your personal experiences with the lakes. I know you grew up around here. Do you have a favorite place on the Great Lakes?
[00:15:39] Steve: Our family still has a summer home near Whitefish Dunes State Park, near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin on the Door Peninsula. That’s my favorite Great Lakes place. It’s where I’ve been going since I was a little kid. That’s where I take my kids. It’s where we spend a lot of our vacation time. But when we’re not there objectively, it would be hard to find a prettier place than in northwestern Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes, all that.
I’m a big fan of a Badger and I love going from Manitowoc over to Luddington and just see those dunes as you’re coming in on the big boat. It’s spectacular. It’s just mind blowing.
[00:16:14] Amy: It’s so hard to believe that’s the Great Lakes region. It’s so beautiful.
[00:16:18] Dan: Yeah. Yeah. You can’t even describe it to people. You just got to see it.
[00:16:22] Amy: Do you think that there is, you know, something that people under-appreciate about the Great Lakes?
[00:16:28] Dan: Yeah. I think they’re frailty they underestimate or overestimate their resilience. We can do a lot of damage to the lakes and short period of time. And we can do a lot of good, but it’s this idea that there is such a big system that it will take care of itself is something that I think is a mindset that we need to get beyond. They were, you know, initially valued as just nautical highways and treated as such. And we’re getting past that. Right now, it seems where we are is they are still nautical highways, but they’re also a nutrient dumping ground. And we’re seeing the consequences of that in Lake Erie and in other areas of the Great Lakes.
[00:17:06] Amy: All right. So we have one final question for you and that is, do you have a favorite Great Lakes story, either your own personal story or something that you’ve covered?
[00:17:16] Dan: There was a guy, Jim Dreyer, I think it was 2004, 2005. He set off in Indiana to the swim the length of Lake Michigan, along the Michigan coast, all the way up to the straits of Mackinac.
And he would go out during the day or he’d go out for multiple days, swim 18-20 miles, and then he would swim in and rest and then go back out. And he had a little kayak attached to his ankle and like a surfer leash or whatever, to have food and supplies. And he was a marathon swimmer and a very strong guy, but the lakes are stronger.
And there were times when it was a rainy fall and the rivers coming out of the Michigan side of Lake Michigan would push him out into the shipping channels. So he was disappearing. I came over with a photographer. We took the SS Badger over to Luddington and at this point the Shark was up around, that’s what he called himself, was up around Frankfort, Michigan.
And he hadn’t been seen in like 10, 12 hours and the waves were massive and 10 feet there were surfers out, but nobody else. He had two people in the support vehicle following him up the coast and he had a cell phone in a waterproof container and it was expected to check in and he didn’t check in and they were panicked.
Finally, they get a call and it was a homeowner and the Shark and washed to shore, not far from where we were and he was alive, but he was exhausted. So we showed up and he had been out for like 22 hours or something. And his equilibrium’s all off from being horizontal for so long. He was just lying there on his back, trying to get his wits about him.
And, um, I just thought after seeing this, I’ll never get to look at these lakes the same. I think anybody who had any exposure to that started looking at the lakes a little bit differently. They’re not just something that can be crossed willy nilly in the comfort of a ferry cabin or some kind of a recreational cruising vessel, but they’re beasts. And they did push him around quite a bit but he made it.
[00:19:10] Amy: That’s a great story. I hadn’t heard that. Well, Dan, it was great to talk to you today. And can you let people know where they can find you and your work or how they can connect with you?
[00:19:22] Dan: Yeah. I am journalist in residence at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee School of Freshwater Science, Center for Water Policy. My email there is EganD@uwm.edu. We’re talking about doing an update to the Great Lakes book, to add an updated chapter on climate change and some other things too, probably. So I don’t know when that’ll happen, but I think it’s something that they’re talking about doing which the book was written in 2016 so it’s already five years old, be time to give it a refresher.
[00:19:52] Steve: We’ll look forward to that and look forward to the new book as well, which I know you started a little work to do on it, but it’s a great topic and I’m really looking forward to seeing it. Dan, thank you for joining us today. It’s been a great conversation and spending time with you.
[00:20:04] Dan: Yeah, thanks for having me enjoyed it.
[00:20:09] Steve: Thanks for listening to Great Lakes Great Stories. Tune in next time for another great conversation about Great Lakes storytelling. Please keep the conversation going with us. Our Twitter and Facebook handles are @GLPFund and we’re using the hashtag #GreatLakesGreatStories.
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Great Lakes Great Stories celebrates the Great Lakes Protection Fund’s 2020 Leadership Award recipients. Visit our Leadership Awards page to learn more about the recipients.
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