deepen at persistent lake level Davis-Besse, others concerned at trend
By TOM HENRY
January 4, 2002
With the Great Lakes at the lowest they’ve been since the
1960s, western Lake Erie’s boating and shipping industries
could be in for another rough summer unless the region gets
socked by a Buffalo-style blizzard soon.
Even if the lake freezes and snowfall reverts to normal
between now and March, as expected, there’s no end in sight
to the problem, according to scientists at two federal agencies
that track the region’s water levels, the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The potential effect goes beyond weekend fishing trips and
cargo hauled here by huge freighters: Akron-based FirstEnergy
Corp. acknowledges it has safety-related concerns about
the long-term effects that declining lake levels could have
on its Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County.
In recent weeks, the utility has been contacting scientists
from NOAA, the corps, and other agencies with questions
about how long the low-water trend could last. The nuclear
plant, which is along the Lake Erie shoreline, needs to
be assured the water will remain deep enough so that it
can continue to draw in thousands of gallons at a time for
"If it dropped so low we couldn’t bring it in, we’d have
to shut the plant down," FirstEnergy spokesman Richard Wilkins
He said the utility has discussed the possibility of extending
its water intake farther into the lake if the long-term
forecast for water levels doesn’t improve, although he noted
that no such project has gotten beyond an informal discussion
Scientists have said for years that Toledo is in the most
fickle part of the Great Lakes - Lake Erie’s shallow western
basin, where water can drop quickly if stiff winds from
the south blow it away from the shoreline.
Compounding the problem are the warm temperatures that have
delayed the lake’s freezing, leaving the open waters rife
This year, Lake Erie’s western basin is weeks behind where
it normally would be, as a result of the region’s rather
mild, snowless winter. It has taken a beating in terms of
evaporation. A return to normal temperatures and precipitation
this late in the season won’t replenish what has been lost,
according to NOAA’s Cynthia Sellinger and the corps’ Roger
Gauthier, both hydrologists.
Ms. Sellinger said she was surprised to get a call from
Davis-Besse officials a few weeks ago. Most of her inquiries
are from marina operators, fishermen, and those affiliated
with the shipping industry.
Davis-Besse operators monitor gauges to make sure the plant
has enough cooling water on hand for a safe shutdown in
the event of an emergency. Since going on line in 1977,
the plant never has had to shut down because of a water
shortage, Mr. Wilkins said.
Ms. Sellinger said she recently completed a study that shows
lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan dropped 2.6 feet from 1998
to 2001, one of the most dramatic three-year declines on
The Cleveland-based Lakes Carriers Association, which represents
the shipping industry, estimates that $22,000 to $28,000
of cargo have to be removed from each barge for every inch
of water the lakes lose - costs that add up to the millions
and typically are passed along to consumers.
The economic effect on the Port of Toledo is hard to gauge,
said John Loftus, seaport director for the Toledo-Lucas
County Port Authority. "The reality is we are dependent
on how Mother Nature is going to run this show. It makes
life unpredictable, so don’t base your business around high
water levels," Mr. Loftus said.
The region’s low-water trend could stick around for years,
if predictions about global warming come true, Ms. Sellinger
The World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations
climate agency, has declared 2001 as the Earth’s second-warmest
on record. The warmest was 1998.
The resulting low water has almost everyone worried, including
marina owners who must dredge deeper to keep docks and berths
open. "We’re all concerned," Joe Ihnat, co-owner of Anchor’s
Away Marina Corp. in Marblehead, said. "Lake Erie is our
main bread and butter, and we need reasonable water depth
to take care of our customers."
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