MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Low water levels in the Great Lakes are causing problems
for shippers, who must shed cargo to avoid running aground in shallower
The lower levels also mean wooden harbor structures that have been
underwater are now exposed to air, hastening their deterioration, the
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
The official depth of the Great Lakes’ navigable waters is supposed to be
27.5 feet. But in some areas this spring it was closer to 25 feet.
That’s a problem for the shipping industry. For every inch below that a
1,000-foot ship has to sail light, it has to shed about 270 tons of cargo to
avoid hitting the bottom, which can account for millions of dollars of
There’s not much hope on the horizon, either. Jim Weakley, the president of
the Lake Carriers Association, said he’s stopped using the word “cyclical”
to describe water levels because the term implies the water will return to
its former level.
“If you’re 14 years below the long-term average, that’s not cyclical,” he
The low water levels are compounded with a backlog in harbor dredging, in
with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers clear out sediment that accumulates on
the bottom. The federal government generally funds the work through taxes on
the value of shipped cargo, but even though it has collected about $1.6
billion per year, it’s only spending about half that, according to the Great
Weakley sees the overall problem as more political than natural Ñ he says
the money is there to do the dredging, but Congress just isn’t spending it.
The lack of navigation depth means that some large freighters are sailing
about 10 percent under capacity.
But it’s not just shippers who stand to lose money. Because of the low
water, ports across the Great Lakes are beginning to crumble and rot because
of exposure to air.
“As water drops, wood that’s been preserved underwater for a long time is
now is being exposed to decay,” said David Wright, the chief of operations
for the Army Corps’ Detroit district. “And if you get a failure of
foundations, you get a failure of structures."