Lake Superior's water level is almost as low as ever recorded. The lake is about 18 inches below normal, and a foot lower than just a year ago.
In the Port of Duluth-Superior, there are places where the harbor is just drying up. Newly exposed sand flats are popping up everywhere, sprinkled with timbers and tires and the odd junk that's accumulated unseen and underwater, until now.
Fred Shusterich runs the busy coal dock in Superior, Wisconsin. Standing on the dock, dozens of feet above the cold water, he points to a patch of brown.
"Right over south of our dock here, there's an island between the dock and our shoreline. I've never seen that. Never seen the island," says Shusterich. "There's a lot of pilings sticking out from old docks; abandoned docks to the east of us that I've never seen. More of our dock's support piling is exposed. I've never seen the water this low."
On this day, a flood of shiny dark coal pours into the gaping hold of the lake freighter James R. Barker. The Barker is more than 1,000 feet long, and can carry almost 70,000 tons of coal. But not today.
Shusterich says the ships are loading light to avoid hitting bottom, especially in the rocky St. Mary's River between Lakes Superior and Huron.
"On a thousand-footer, one inch of draft is about 250 to 267 tons, depending on vessel hull configurations," says Shusterich. "We're down about 18 inches in the system. In Duluth, as controlled by the St. Mary's River, that's about 4,500 tons a vessel."
Primarily the weather is to blame. In less than 10 years, the Great Lakes have gone from unusually high water levels to near record low levels.
But the federal government deserves some of the blame as well, according to Duluth Seaway Port Director Adolph Ojard. Ojard says the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for dredging the harbors and shipping channels, and that hasn't been done in recent years.
"These years of high water levels have permitted the Corps of Engineers to defer a lot of dredging on the Great Lakes," Ojard says. "This recent cycle and downturn in water levels is now exposing that issue, and the deferring of dredging is now becoming a real critical issue to the commercial shipping interests throughout the Great Lakes."
In Duluth, Ojard says, the main shipping channels are deep enough. But that's not necessarily the case where the ships unload.
"If one port doesn't get the dredging it needs, that means the Port of Duluth-Superior can't ship tonnage to that port," Ojard says. "And then all of the sudden another one is light loading, or they can't receive product. What happens is it starts to snowball, and the tonnage we move on the Great Lakes gets less and less."
That means less profit for shippers, and higher costs for coal-generated electric power or for steel made from Minnesota taconite.
The problem is getting attention in Congress. The U.S. House just passed a $13 billion water resources bill with money for accelerated Great Lakes dredging. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat who represents northeastern Minnesota and the Duluth area, chairs the House Transportation Committee.
"Normally, we would each year move water resources legislation in the range of a billion, billion-and-a-half dollars of projects that need to be done -- channel deepening, harbor improvements, locks and dams, water infrastructure projects. We do this annually. But this is six years' worth of accumulation, so it's a $13 billion bill," says Oberstar.
A similar package is expected soon in the Senate. But the Bush administration says the bill is too expensive.
That's not what Oberstar wants to hear.
"It's six years worth of delayed projects," he says. "This administration never raised a finger to help us move this bill."
Meanwhile, there are signs the drought might be easing. April has been a little wetter than normal. But even with normal precipitation, it could take years to restore normal levels on a lake the size of Superior.