Lake level adds to crisisNear-record low water levels on most of the Great Lakes and harbor dredging work that needs more funding has shippers light loading cargos this season, according to Duluth Seaway Port Authority officials.
By: By Kevin Murphy/For the Superior Telegram, Superior Telegram
Near-record low water levels on most of the Great Lakes and harbor dredging work that needs more funding has shippers light loading cargos this season, according to Duluth Seaway Port Authority officials.
Despite very wet October weather Lake Superior water levels are four inches below last year at this time and 15 inches below its average long-term level, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief hydrologist for the Detroit District of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Superior is better off than lakes Michigan and Huron, which the Corps treats as one, are within 1.5 inches of its record low-level, Kompoltowicz said.
Every inch counts as shippers lighten loads of a 1,000-foot lake boats by 260 to 270 tons for each inch of draft they lose due to low water levels, said James Sharrow, Duluth Seaway Port facilities manager.
A 1,000-foot lake boat, of which 13 ply the Great Lakes, can carry 65,000 tons of weight under average conditions, they lessen that by 260 tons per trip under recent conditions, which adds up to 10,000 tons they didn’t carry during the shipping season, said Sharrow.
“They make 43-45 cargos (trips) per season … and can make it up by adding two or three cargos a season,” he said.
Nearly all cargos leaving the Twin Ports are destined for harbors on the other Great Lakes requiring captains to calculate tonnage they will carry based on the least drafting conditions in the channels they will encounter.
While lake levels are lower, economic activity has risen along with traffic at the Port of Duluth-Superior. This season, the port is on track to move 38 million tons of cargo, up from 37.1 million last season, said Adele Yorde, the Port Authority spokesperson.
“There’s been a strong demand for iron ore and limestone as the world economies support increased prices for those commodities and there’s been a lot more movement of general cargo such as equipment for wind energy projects,” she said.
Less ice cover allowed the locks at Soo Locks to remain open three days more than usual at the end of the shipping season in January and opened one day earlier in March at the beginning of the season, Yorde said.
Low lake levels aggravate what the Lake Carriers Association calls “the dredging crisis” in many of the 63 federally maintained Great Lakes ports. The federal government collects a fee based on the value of waterborne cargo to pay for dredging but doesn’t spend it all on harbor maintenance.
The fee raises about $1.5 billion annually to be spent on harbor and channel dredging but only about half is spent on the intended use and the rest applied elsewhere, said Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Port Authority.
While the Federal Highway Trust Fund spends revenue generated from gas tax on highway projects and fees imposed on airline passengers funds airport projects, shippers don’t enjoy the same “equitable treatment,” said Yorde.
“We sit fine in Duluth-Superior with our channels depths, ‘salties’ and ‘lakers’ can move in our port but, we’re part of a seaway system and the smaller ports are much more silted in which makes for a challenge to delivering to them. Lakers must lighter their loads on our end so they can deliver to smaller ports,” Yorde said.
The Corps adequately funds dredging needs at the Twin Ports, said Ojard, who urged passage of pending legislation that requires the government to spend what it takes in for harbor maintenance.
As end of the 2012-13 season approaches, Sharrow says it’s been “an okay season,” compared the sharp decline in tonnage moved during the 2008 economic downturn.
The Twin Ports had averaged 40 million tons with some years reaching 46 million. Those figures will have to be reached during what the Corps forecasts as continued low lake levels for the foreseeable future.