St. Clair rises, but levels are still below average
relax some; fewer run aground
Tony Manolatos and Edward L. Cardenas / The Detroit News
-- Belle Maer Harbor owner Marc Howard has had a keen eye
on the fluctuating water levels on Lake St. Clair in recent
The Harrison Township marina owner saw
that seemingly drought-like conditions nearly three years
ago were causing the water levels on the lake to drop. That
prompted Howard to become one of the first to dredge a harbor
on the lake to ensure boaters would have easy ingress and
Things -- and water levels -- have changed.
Lake St. Clair still is 6 inches below
average for the month of August -- but 9 inches above the
water level last year at this time, according to the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers. With the higher water on the lake,
businesses and boaters are having a stronger year.
"It is a better summer than last year,"
Howard said. "People got their confidence back with higher
levels. "The gas dock guy has a big smile on his face for
the first time in a few years."
In the spring of 2001 -- after four years
of less than average precipitation -- the Great Lakes fell
to their lowest point in 35 years. Water in Superior, Michigan,
Huron and Erie remain below normal. Lake St. Clair is fed
by water from lakes Michigan and Huron.
But heavy rains last October and November
helped Lake St. Clair and the other Great Lakes, which also
are higher this year than in 2001, said Keith Kompoltowicz,
a meteorologist with the Army Corps of Engineers.
"It's good news, but boaters still need
to be cautious because the water levels are still below
average," said Kompoltowicz, who recommends carrying current
charts showing water levels.
Kompoltowicz forecasts below-average water
levels for the rest of the year, but they still will be
higher than last year.
Howard isn't really surprised.
At the start of this boating season, he
observed the water levels were higher than in previous years
and that weather experts were calling for heavy rains early
this year across the Western Hemisphere.
When water levels are low, boaters have
to be careful where they navigate on Lake St. Clair. Some
spots become too shallow for sailboats with long keels,
even for some rudders and propellers. The problem especially
has been tough on people living along canals that feed into
the lake. Even boats that require only shallow water have
had tough times getting through.
Owners of large boats also have had trouble
docking in marina slips, or going through canals because
of the risk of damaging their hulls.
Marina owners, like Howard, resorted to
expensive dredging -- removal of sediment on the water bottom
-- so boats could get into and out of the facilities.
"I didn't have to worry about dredging
this year, so it's helped us," said Ann Miller, owner of
Miller Marina in St. Clair Shores. "And the boaters are
a little more relaxed this year."
Miller spent more than $150,000 to dredge
parts of her marina last year and the year before.
Business at the marina was slow in the
spring, Miller said. But it's picked up considerably. Only
30 of the 351 boat wells at the marina are open. The others
are being rented.
The higher water also has meant fewer
boats running aground in shallow areas.
The U.S. Coast Guard went on two or three
reports of grounded boats each week on Lake St. Clair last
summer. So far this summer, the coast guard has done about
two or three grounding runs per month.
"People seem to be more responsible out
there, but most of it is the water levels ... they're way
up this year," Chief Petty Officer Terry Lathrop said.
Fewer boats are being brought into repair
shops because fewer are running aground, but business still
is up at Dock Box Services in St. Clair Shores. Boat repairs
are up 50 percent at the shop because more boats are on
the lake than in last year, service manager Vic Rohr said.
"The high water has a lot to do with it,
but we've had some great weekend weather too," Rohr said.
While recreational boaters are enjoying
the rising waters, only more years of higher water will
please officials in the Great Lakes freighter industry.
Glen G. Nekvasil, spokesman for the Lakes
Carriers' Association, a Cleveland-based group that represents
freight companies, said it will take years of high water
levels to offset losses over recent years.
Freighters have had to carry smaller loads
so as not to get caught up in shallow water. Smaller loads
translate into smaller profits.
In 1997, the largest freighters on the
lakes could carry 70,000 tons of cargo, Nekvasil said. In
2000, the same freighters could only carry 60,000 tons.
This year, the ships are able to haul as much as 66,000
"The (Great) Lakes have come back a lot
quicker than people thought, but there's still room for
improvement," Nekvasil said.
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