Official: Water levels in Michigan lakes are far below average

Tribune News Service • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:17 PM

Some wet weather and freeze-thaw cycles that created runoff helped water levels on Lakes Michigan and Huron rise 2 inches in February, to 576.2 feet, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit District. But that's still a foot lower than historical averages, he said.

All of the Great Lakes remain below their long-term average, and all are forecast to remain that way at least over the next six months, Kompoltowicz said.

January's record low water levels were also the lowest monthly average water ever recorded for any month on the Great Lakes, with records extending back to 1918.

Lakes Michigan and Huron have remained continuously below average for 14 years, Kompoltowicz said, a result of extended drought, meaning less rain and snowfall to feed the lakes, hot summers resulting in ramped-up evaporation, and less ice cover in milder winters to prevent evaporation.

"Just because we didn't set a record low in February doesn't mean significant impacts will not be felt, especially as we move into the navigation season later this month," he said.

Shallower lakes mean cargo ships must carry less to avoid damage, said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Ohio-based Lake Carriers' Association, representing commercial cargo carriers on the Great Lakes.

"Depending on the size of your vessel, you lose every anywhere from 50 to 270 tons of cargo for every inch of draft you lose," he said. "In many instances we're not talking inches, we're talking feet."

The Soo Locks connect Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes at Sault Ste. Marie. Nekvasil noted that the largest coal cargo that moved through the locks last year was 64,706 tons. Back in the high-water days of 1997, a record coal cargo of 70,903 tons was set, he said.

"The water levels and the drought cost us there 6,200 tons of cargo, and that's just in one trip," he said. "Ships in that trade will make around 50 trips per year."

That's 310,000 tons of cargo, and that means money — money to maintain and modernize ships, and to expand the industry when markets dictate it, Nekvasil said.

"This is happening throughout the fleet," Nekvasil said. "The boats in the iron ore trade are leaving cargo behind, as are the limestone carriers."

Nekvasil called on federal authorities to release funds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, a federal fund created through taxes on ship cargo, to dredge deep-draft ports throughout the Great Lakes. The fund takes in about $1.6 billion per year but spends less than $800 million.

"It's being used to paper-balance the budget, to make the federal deficit look smaller," he said.

A bill by Michigan Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin would require spending the funds raised in the trust fund each year. The bill has 31 co-sponsors, including 12 senators from Great Lakes states. A companion bill in the U.S. House also has 94 co-sponsors, but both bills have yet to have committee hearings, Nekvasil said.

"We're paying for this service and it's not being provided," he said. "We don't have to raise taxes or borrow money. The money is there. It just has to be spent."

— By Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press (MCT)

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