Great perils of the Great Lakes
Invasive species, sinking water levels, and pollution are worrisome trends. But there’s also grandeur to be seen aboard a bulk freighter.
(Page 2 of 3)
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“What gets into the Great Lakes can work through the country like a computer virus and dismantle the biology of systems,” says Cameron Davis, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes (AGL), a citizens’ group of 6,000 professionals and volunteers working for clean water in the Great Lakes. The choke point is a 10-mile stretch of the Chicago River, the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal. “The bad news is,” Mr. Davis continues, “even if we know where the choke point is, we are having a hard time taking action.”
The Great Lakes Compact is expected to give federal, state, and provincial governments more muscle to take preventative action against invasive species.
Storms and surges a danger
Venturing “light ship” (without cargo) across the stormy lakes of autumn can be unsettling. When 50-knot northerly winds lash the surface of Lake Erie, sending some lakers into sheltered anchorages, Captain Wheeler decides to maintain course. Lake Erie is shallower than the other great lakes and more likely to be whipped up by storms. Ships at anchor off Toledo, Ohio, may suddenly find themselves aground when a short-term natural effect called “seiching” (pronounced “SAY-shing”) drives surface water towards Buffalo, N.Y., at the eastern end of Lake Erie.
Despite a few seasonal blips, a 30-year trend shows that water levels are declining. This is one of the main reasons the Great Lakes Compact was rushed into law. Canadian and American entrepreneurs alike had been seeking ways to commercialize the freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, hoping to send it by pipe or ship to thirsty markets in the US Southwest and overseas.
Still, the Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition predicts that lake levels could drop this century by one foot on Lake Superior, three feet on Lakes Michigan and Huron, 2.7 feet on Lake Erie, and 1.7 feet on Lake Ontario.
Water levels are also a challenge for American ship operators, the largest of whose vessels are “1,000 footers” designed to carry 70,000 tons. The largest Canadian bulk carriers, like the Canadian Leader of the Upper Lakes Group, carry only half that much.
“Water levels are very important to us,” says Glen Neksavil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, a trade association based in Rocky River, Ohio, which represents 16 American companies operating 63 vessels exclusively on the lakes. “When water levels were high back in 1997, some of our ships were carrying 70,000 tons of cargo per trip. This year, they are carrying 66,500 tons.... Our largest ships lose 270 tons of cargo for each inch in draft caused by lower water,” he says.