Lakes Michigan, Huron sink to lowest level ever

פורסם: 4 בפבר׳ 2013, 11:26 על ידי: Sustainability Org   [ עודכן 4 בפבר׳ 2013, 11:31 ]

Governor expected to call Thursday for $11M to dredge harbors

By Jim Lynch , The Detroit News

In the nearly 100 years researchers have catalogued the rise and fall of the Great Lakes, Michigan and Huron have never seen a month like January.

The two-lake system recorded its lowest-ever level for a month, a mean of 576.02 feet above sea level. It's a number that dips below the all-time low for January — 576.12 feet — as well as the all-time low for any month, 576.05 feet in March 1964.

For those who live along or play in the waters of the Great Lakes, the news is disturbing but unsurprising. Each of the lakes has lingered below its long-term averages for years as the region endured drought-like conditions. When the 2011-12 winter produced less-than-expected snowfall and the ensuing spring produced little rainfall, the seeds were sown for records.

Low lakes have meant recreational watercraft running aground, shorelines and beaches expanding as the lakes recede, changing fish habitats and forcing shipping vessels to drastically reduce the tonnage they carry.

The record comes as Gov. Rick Snyder prepares to unveil his 2013-14 budget Thursday in which he's expected to call for $11 million to dredge harbors to keep access to open waters, the Associated Press reported late Friday.

Other steps to alleviate the effects of low water levels will include expediting Department of Environmental Quality permits for dredging projects, pushing for more federal funding and devising a long-term strategy to pay for keeping harbors deep enough for recreational and commercial vessels, according to the AP.

Snyder's proposal would pull the money from a fund overseen by the Michigan State Waterways Commission that comes primarily from motor fuel taxes and supports improvements such as breakwalls and boat ramps, the AP said.

"A lot of people don't realize that lake levels are extremely low," Snyder said in Grand Rapids last week. "It is critically important to tourism and other things in Michigan, in terms of normal business and commerce."

State lawmakers seem to be on board with finding money for dredging. Republicans in the House last week indicated they will consider tapping the state's Natural Resources Trust Fund — which has roughly $500 million — to take on a host of projects that include dredging harbors.

That move would be welcomed by a shipping industry that has lobbied for years to have federal lawmakers free up all of the money available in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. With the lakes bordering, and now crossing, historic lows, the time is right, they have argued.

Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, has said harbors that go without dredging year after year lose more and more draft over time. And every inch of draft lost means 270 tons of material a ship can't carry.

While Lake Michigan/Huron has seen the worst of it, other Michigan lakes have been consistently low as well:

Lake Superior finished January with a mean water level of 600.36 feet, while its historic low for the month is 588.84 feet set in 1926.

Lake St. Clair's January mean was 572.57 feet, while its historic low for the month is 570.47 feet set in 1936.

Lake Erie's January mean was 570.28 feet, while its historic low was set in 1935 at 568.27 feet.

Lake Ontario finished January with a mean of 244.03 feet, while its historic low of 242.16 feet came in 1935.

The snow and ice that accumulate in the upper Great Lakes during the late fall and winter, particularly in and around Lake Superior, create the runoff that dictates how high levels climb or how low they will sink during the year.

For many Metro Detroiters, the last few weeks of snow and rain may seem to indicate the lakes will rise later this year.

Keith Kompoltowicz, the U.S. Army Corp.'s chief of watershed hydrology, said the weather so far — including the recent string of days with 50 degree temperatures — has been inconsistent.

"It's really been a mixed bag of conditions so far," he said.