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Low water levels cause concern.

Shipping companies forced to lighten loads for second consecutive season

Another spring of low water levels on the Great Lakes has businesses that make their living off this natural resource sweating it out, concerned that a wet spring and sustained runoff may reverse a two-year cyclical trend.

Environment Canada is predicting Lake Superior and Lake Huron will be 10 to 15 centimetres lower than last summer and may reach their lowest. level in 35 years. United States Army Corps of Engineers' best guess is that things might get worse before they get better based on early indicators. At the end of April, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, which rise and fall as one, were 53 centimetres below average.

Low water levels are not the greatest hydrological forecast for shipping companies like Thunder Bay's N. M. Paterson & Sons. Low levels in narrow channels and ports mean not only less wiggle room for freighter captains to manoeuver, but another summer of reduced draft levels.

Gary Woodbeck, Paterson's director of traffic and marine operations, says it's the second consecutive shipping season they've had to lighten their loads from full seaway draft of 26 feet and 3 inches.

This year Paterson reduced its draft levels the depth at which a loaded vessel is submerged - by one foot to start the shipping season, but has since bumped it up to nine inches.

Every inch of reduced draft equals a cargo reduction of about 110 tons and roughly about 1,000 tons less cargo per trip that's left on the dock.

"The average load is about 25,000 tons and we're losing about one-twenty-fifth of cargo," says Woodbeck.

The Paterson fleet operates four bulk carriers hauling grain eastward from Thunder Bay, Duluth, Chicago and Toledo to the St. Lawrence Seaway ports and iron ore back westward from pointe Noire, Quebec to the steel mills of Lake Michigan. Three ships are in mothballs due to low water levels.

He cites the St. Mary's River at Sault Ste. Marie, the Amherstburg Channel in the lower Detroit River and the Calumet River in Chicago amongst the most treacherous during low water.

While the general rule of thumb among skippers is to have at least two feet of water under their keels, Woodbeck says some American shipping companies operating the larger 1000-foot vessels sometimes gamble with substantially less clearance.

"You only have so many trips and so many running days a year and you can't make it up. By the time you're on the 20th or 21st trip (of the season) you're doing it for free."

Woodbeck says the bulk carrier business has been a tough trade over the last eight years with a slowdown in grain volumes on the lakes, rising fuel costs and now two successive years of low water.

Some relief arrived this spring when heavy rainfall coupled with an April snow melt combined to set a record high for any month in Lake Superior's water level. In its May release, the International Lake Superior Board of Control reports Lake Superior rose by a record high 29 centimetres during April. However, the lake level still remains below its long-term average for the spring.

"We've never seen the lake come up this fast,' says Dennis Johnson, harbourmaster and CEO of the Thunder Bay Port Authority.

He estimates loaded freighters downbound from Thunder Bay are, on average, leaving harbour 1,000 to 1,500 tons lighter, but their neighbours across the lake in Duluth, Minnesota, which receive the larger ore boats are leaving 3,000 to 5,000 tons lighter.

Johnson says the narrow Rock Cut passage in the lower St. Mary's River at the Sault remains especially vulnerable for ships.

As of mid-May, the spring runoff hadn't reached some marina operators on Manitoulin Island who were hedging their bets against low water by relocating docks, dredging channels or, in some cases, blasting through rocky bottoms to clear passages for pleasure craft.

Stan Ferguson, owner/operator of the Harbor Vue Marina in Little Current, estimates he's spent more than $80,000 dredging over the past two years to eliminate some of the flat spots at his facility.

Though it's difficult to peg expected water levels, he anticipates levels will stay as low as last year. His transient boater traffic dropped off about 10 to 15 per cent last year, but he attributes that to a combination of cool summer weather and a rainy July that kept many boating tourists in their home waters.

He says the "negative" media reports about low water are scaring off American boaters from the North.
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Article Details
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Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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