In 2012, water levels in Lake Michigan, pictured, and Lake Huron fell to record low levels for December. Photo: Jeff Haynes / AFP / Getty Images

By Mike Pearson
14 January 2013

(CNN) – Chris Berkey makes his living plying the often treacherous waters of the Great Lakes, delivering staples like cement to industries nestled in the myriad harbors that dot a coastline that's equal to nearly half of the circumference of the globe.

It's not glamorous work, but it is critical to the U.S. economy. And it's getting harder.

Water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron fell to record low levels for December, and are expected to break the all-time low sometime in the next few months.

Cargo ships like Berkey's are being forced to lighten their loads, some harbors have already been forced to close and the tourist trade is bracing for an impact as well.

"In years past, there was always a buffer," he said. "That buffer's gone."

It's not a new problem. Lake levels have been below average for at least 13 years, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit.

But it is an increasingly serious one:

  • The coal trade on the Great Lakes declined 8.2% in 2012 from the previous year, and down a quarter off the 5-year-averge -- in large part due to falling water levels and a $200 million backlog in necessary dredging throughout the lakes, according to the Lake Carriers' Association.
  • Commercial fishing boats are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate some harbors, risking a downturn in a vital part of the Great Lakes economy, said Mark Breederland, an educator with Michigan SeaGrant, which works with coastal communities on water-level issues, among other things.
  • Charter boat operations and other businesses in coastal communities that depend on tourism fear the impact lower water levels will have from spring to fall, when tens of thousands of people flow into the state to boat, fish, eat out and shop. […]

While the big deepwater ships that carry huge quantities of the nation's iron ore, coal and other goods are able to steam the deep waters of the Great Lakes as they always have, they must carry ever lighter loads to avoid grounding on the increasingly shallow harbors where they unload.

For instance, Nekvasil visited a ship Friday in Indiana Harbor, Indiana that's designed to carry 76,000 tons of iron ore. Because of low water levels and the harbors filing with silt, it can only carry 58,000 tons, he said.

As of now, light-loading is merely a matter of efficiency, Nevkasil said. But that's in large part because the fragile economic recovery has not yet put a full burner under the nation's industry.

"We can meet demand now because the economy is not fully recovered," he said. "If demand for all of the cargo we move was at peak levels, we could not."

New water lows for Great Lakes could drain local economies via Apocadocs

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