Low levels in Great Lakes bad news for shippers

James R. Barker
The James R. Barker, a 1,000-foot ship, passes under the Duluth Aerial Liftbridge in this file photo from April 6, 2012.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Water levels on the Great Lakes are so low that shippers are being forced to leave as much as 15 percent of their cargo behind, said industry experts who are working to find ways to alleviate the problem.

Lakes Michigan and Huron are about 26 inches below their long-term monthly averages, and Lake Superior is about 13 inches lower, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers has said. Even though the lakes are expected to rise 2 to 4 inches in the next month, that's small consolation for shippers who are finding the waterways difficult to navigate.

So officials gathered this week in Green Bay to discuss the issue and consider solutions, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.

"One of things we're looking at is: What are all these economic impacts and what are the costs of low water?'' said Ray Johnston, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce. "And are there any viable engineering solutions or infrastructure investments that can be made?''

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Concerns about low water levels have been growing for years among commercial and recreational lake users. Commercial users are especially concerned because heavily laden ships need a minimum volume of water. Without enough water, loads must be reduced.

Dean Haen, the director of Brown County Port and Solid Waste, said each inch of lost water translates to about 100 tons of cargo being left behind.

"If we're operating vessels 10 to 15 percent below capacity, that's an additional cost for those commodities on board,'' which translates into additional costs for consumers, he said.

Haen said continued dredging is helping to keep the port open.

"All we can do is advocate for whatever dredging dollars we need to keep the port open and viable,'' he said. "You have to operate within the conditions as they are.''

Earlier this week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation providing $21 million in emergency funds to dredge state harbors that are in danger of becoming impassable because of low water levels. The legislation sets aside money for 58 dredging projects.

Diminished water levels have also been observed on the St. Lawrence Seaway, but not to the same degree as with some of the Great Lakes, said Craig Middlebrook, acting administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.

"It hasn't been as acute, but we're still affected by low water,'' he said. "I was talking with one of our major carriers last week who ... calculated last year it translated into leaving 9 percent of their cargo on the dock."


Information from: Green Bay Press-Gazette