Great Lakes' Lower Water Levels Propel a Cascade of Hardships

Lake Michigan off Chicago is far less icy than in years past, one of several reasons for dropping water levels in the Great Lakes.
Lake Michigan off Chicago is far less icy than in years past, one of several reasons for dropping water levels in the Great Lakes. (By Kari Lydersen -- The Washington Post)
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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

CHICAGO -- A decade ago, Chicago winters meant monumental ice hillocks and caves forming along the lakeshore, skirted by interlocking ice sheets like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Today, it is rare to see more than a thin frozen shelf or a few small ice floes sloshing in Lake Michigan below the city's skyline.

Decreased ice cover on the Great Lakes, probably caused by increasing air and water temperatures and high winds, is a major culprit in lowering water levels, which have hurt the shipping industry, forced lakeside power plants to extend their cooling pipes, frustrated recreational boaters, dried up wetlands and left coastal landowners with docks extending over yards of unsightly muck.

In September, Lake Superior broke its 81-year-old low-water record by 1.6 inches, and last month it was a foot below its seasonal average. It appeared that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron would log record lows for January until storms helped levels stay above the marks set in the 1960s.

The low water has forced freighters that haul iron ore, steel, limestone and other raw materials to lighten their loads and change their routes to avoid running aground in shallow harbors and waterways.

"They literally do load these ships by the inch," said Stuart H. Theis, executive director of the U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association. "To the lowest common denominator, the shallowest point along the way."

In the past two years, freighters have hit bottom or had to turn around in numerous locations, including Muskegon Harbor and the Saginaw River in Michigan and Rochester, N.Y.

The Lake Carriers' Association, which represents "captive" ships that travel only within the Great Lakes, has called for increased dredging at numerous "choke points" in response to low water levels. LCA spokesman Glen Nekvasil said vessels were running an average of 15 percent below capacity last season. Depending on the size of the ship, every inch of lost draft -- the depth to which a ship descends -- means 50 to 270 tons less cargo.

"And we're not talking inches, we're talking feet," Nekvasil said. "It's not just affecting the steamships; it's the steelworkers who depend on that iron ore, the workers at the limestone quarries. We move the raw materials that keep everyone else going."

Environmentalists are concerned that the drying of wetlands along the shores will have serious effects on commercial and recreational fishing.

"We firmly believe the changes we're seeing are impacting fisheries, possibly in a dramatic way," said Jeff Skelding of the National Wildlife Federation. "Disruption of habitat will impede fish species from being able to reproduce."

Marc Gaden, spokesman of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, said the changes may be conducive to some species and harmful to others. The same can be said for people.

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