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Great Lakes Article:

Water levels in Great Lakes continue to drop

Article courtesy of The Buffalo News

October 31, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Get ready for another summer of bigger beaches — and banged-up boats.

The Army Corps of Engineers' latest forecast shows Lake Erie will be six to seven inches lower than last year, when it hits its annual high sometime later this month.

Already the lake is 11 inches below its long-term average, according to officials.

Most of Lake Erie's water, about 80 percent, comes from the upper Great Lakes, but those lakes are in worse shape than here.

The rains that have swollen the Mississippi River have helped increase the level of Lake Superior recently.

But after three straight years of near-drought conditions there, all that is doing is refilling the lake, which remains eight inches below its historical average.

Lakes Michigan and Huron, which rise and fall as one, were 21 inches below average as of the end of April. Lake Ontario, whose levels are subject to control, is only four inches below average.

Mark C. Judd is president of Buffalo Industrial Diving Co., which does boat maintenance and marine construction. These days, though, dredging is a big part of Judd's business.

"I am 15 men shy, and right now I'm calling all around the country looking for quality divers," said Judd, whose company grew by 300 percent last year.

Some of that growth was expansion-related, but Judd estimated that perhaps 25 percent of it was related to scooping out material from clogged boat launches, channels and marinas.

Dredging along the Great Lakes is already growing. Roger Gauthier, a lakes level expert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps' Detroit district has granted twice the number of dredging permits over the past two years than it did for the period prior to 1997.

The Town of Hamburg dredged its boat launch this week but for the second year in a row, the low water levels mean the stationary dock won't reach the water.

Less water affects different kinds of boats in different ways. For motorboat operators, an encounter with an unseen obstacle that is now closer to the surface can lead to expensive repairs to engines and fiberglass hulls.

"Last year, we had a record number of repairs for low-water incidents," said Bob Bieber, president of Bird Island Marine in Hamburg, who estimated repairs related to low water jumped about 75 percent last year.

For many sailboats, the problems are related to the keels under the boat that provide stability.

Even experienced sailors such as Mark Sender, fleet captain of the Buffalo Yacht Club, can find unexpected problems. He was briefly grounded by low water while sailing off Point Abino near the Buffalo Canoe Club last year.

Sender said the yacht club prepared for the expected low water levels by dredging its anchorage two years ago.

The Coast Guard, as was the case last year, is urging boaters to pay more attention when they navigate what are normally familiar waters, especially those close to the shoreline.

For large cargo ships that haul grain, coal and steel, lower levels mean another bad year.

Glen Nekvasil of the Lakes Carrier Association said U.S.-registered cargo ships along the Great Lakes moved 113 million net tons last year, down 2.1 percent despite the fact that the shipping season had 26 more days than the year before.

For every inch decrease in the lake levels, Nekvasil said cargo haulers lose 270 net tons, which means more ships carrying less material.

Less water in the lakes also means less water running through the hydroelectric generators the New York Power Authority runs in Niagara Falls and on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

"It's not good news," said Jack Murphy of the power authority. "We notify our customers when we have to cut back on firm commitments. So far, we have had to notify them every month this year."

The cut for June was 6.5 percent, compared with 11.1 percent in May, according to Murphy.

The low levels are a concern, but are within the range of normal historical fluctuation.

Low precipitation and high evaporation usually drive down lake levels. Experts don't know if another factor — global warming — is playing a role.

"If it is global warming evolving, then yes, the (long-term) lows are expected to be lower, significantly lower," said Gauthier of the Army Corps of Engineers. "Some studies I've seen say at least two feet lower than in the 1930s."

All the historical low-water marks on Lakes Erie and Ontario were established in the 1930s.
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