By JOHN F. BONFATTI
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
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
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
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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