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Sunday, 26 October 2014 22:00

Great Lakes shippers see sharp rise in Lake Michigan levels this year

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Ports such as Holland, pictured, have benefited from higher water levels this year, which are up about 20 inches compared to the same time last year. Ports such as Holland, pictured, have benefited from higher water levels this year, which are up about 20 inches compared to the same time last year. COURTESY PHOTO

Rising Lake Michigan water levels have translated into increased business for at least one Muskegon-based shipping company.

The reason: With Lake Michigan more than 20 inches higher than at this time last year, Great Lakes vessels can carry more cargo without the fear of running aground as they enter various ports around the lakes.

Port City Marine Services Inc. has picked up an average of 250 tons of extra cargo per trip this year compared to the last few years, said Vice President of Operations Edward Hogan. Over this season in which the company expects to make 87 trips, the ability to haul additional cargo each trip amounts to five extra boatloads of cement that Port City Marine is able to haul this year at the same cost, he said.

“We’re as busy as I’ve seen it in many years,” Hogan said. “I can’t think of anybody that would be have bad feelings about higher water levels because so many people have suffered with low levels.”

Port City Marine operates two vessels on Lake Michigan, primarily transporting cement from northern Michigan to companies in Milwaukee, Chicago, Grand Haven and other regional ports.

Water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron — which are hydraulically the same lake because of their connection at the Straits of Mackinac — have hovered just north of 579 feet above sea level this month — almost two feet higher than last year, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District.

While Lake Michigan levels have flirted with the long-term average at times in the last decade, the level surpassed the average in September for just the second time since 1998, according to data from the Corps of Engineers. In fact, just 20 months ago in January 2013, water levels on Lake Michigan set a new all-time record low at 576.02 feet — more than three feet lower than the current water level.

If the Corps of Engineers’ six-month projections in its October Great Lakes report hold, the water levels in Lake Michigan could be above the long-term average for the foreseeable future, perhaps breaking the 16-year cycle of below-average water levels.

“For the shippers, obviously this is a boon,” said Alan Steinman, director of the Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. “They don’t have to light load their cargo, and it’s certainly advantageous for moving freight throughout the lakes with less dredging and a cascade of benefits.”

For every inch the water level increases, shippers can add between 50 tons to 270 more tons of cargo per load, industry sources said.

Year-to-date total U.S. dry goods cargo shipped on the Great Lakes reached nearly 11 million tons as of August — the latest data available — a 5 percent increase from 2013, according to the Lake Carriers’ Association, a shipping industry group based in Rocky River, Ohio. This year marks a 16 percent increase from the same time in 2012 when shippers moved approximately 9.5 million tons of cargo on the Great Lakes.

While the increased shipping activity has certainly been aided by the water levels — allowing certain freighters to carry an additional 10,000 tons in some cases — the uptick in shipments also reflects an improving economy and pent-up demand, said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association.

Although shippers have embraced the additional cargo capacity this year, 2014 started out with its share of challenges. Last winter, Lake Michigan set a record with over 93 percent of its surface covered in ice, and the conditions delayed the traditional shipping season on the lakes, Nekvasil said.

That led to a 45 percent reduction in cargo in March and April compared to last year, he said. Trips that were scheduled to take three days took as long as eight days, leading to spot shortages of certain commodities across the Great Lakes region, sources said.

“We really started the year late because of the ice buildup,” Hogan said. “Everybody was at the same point: Customers were out of product and the mills up north had a bunch (of product) but couldn’t move it.

Now we end up with the best water levels we’ve seen in a decade, and it’s really helping us get caught up.”

In recent years, low water levels posed navigational challenges for Great Lakes commercial vessels as silt choked off access to even deepwater ports such as Muskegon. In response, shippers had to light-load their freighters, meaning they couldn’t haul as much cargo per trip, which resulted in increased costs per ton for their customers, as MiBiz previously reported. On top of that, federal funding for harbor dredging has become a political football in recent years, effectively delaying action to open some ports for shipping activity.

Even with the higher water levels, the importance of dredging hasn’t been diminished, Nekvasil said. With 18 million cubic yards of sediment throughout the Great Lakes system, ports and shipping channels will still need to be dredged to meet the demand for cargo, he said.

“This is a welcomed development and we needed all the help we could get this year, but we have to recognize that this is Mother Nature,” Nekvasil said. “Water levels are going to go down again and dredging is still the most important thing.”

The same ice that clogged shipping channels and delayed cargo also played a crucial role in the higher water levels shippers are currently enjoying, Steinman said. The ice cover greatly reduced the amount of evaporation from the lake’s surface and kept levels higher than they would have been without the ice cover, he said.

High precipitation levels throughout the Great Lakes basin this year contributed to the increase in water levels as well, Steinman said.

Since numerous factors play into water levels, thinking about them in the context of a checking account makes it more simple, Steinman said. Direct precipitation and runoff represent money coming in, while evaporation shows money going out.

The coming winter will largely determine next year’s water levels, but scientists aren’t eager to forecast exactly what those may be.

“It’s a fools errand to predict what water levels will do in the future,” Steinman said. “One thing that we can be assured of is it’s not going to be stable. Water levels are affected by climate and the climate is changing every day. It’s the extremes that create problems.”


Read 3443 times Last modified on Sunday, 26 October 2014 21:23

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