MUSKEGON — Higher Great Lakes water levels this spring should benefit the shipping industry and even recreational boat harbors, but also create shoreline erosion and other problems for docks and piers.
For marine freight companies, the added depth translates into efficiencies and makes it safer and easier for vessels to navigate harbors. Shipping companies can haul heavier loads over fewer trips to move the same amount of commodity, said Chuck Canestraight, president of Sand Products Corp. and Port City Marine Services Inc., both based in Muskegon.
“From a marine shipping end of things, it’s pretty hard to find something negative,” he said of the higher water levels. “They can put more on per load.”
Canestraight used the example of a 1,000-foot vessel, which can haul 250 tons more per inch of additional water. Meanwhile, smaller vessels similar to Port City Marine’s cement hauling barges average 75 tons more for every additional inch of water.
“We can move 600 or 700 more tons,” he said. “If a vessel does 50 or 60 trips a year, you gain three cargo shipments per year.”
As MiBiz reported last month, the affiliated Port City Barge Inc. invested more than $40 million in a new 495-foot by 72-foot freight barge capable of hauling up to 14,500 tons of cement for customer St. Marys Cement US LLC, which has a plant in Charlevoix.
While regulations govern how much a vessel can haul depending on the season, the deeper water allows companies to fill to capacity, added Ron Matthews, president of Verplank Dock Co.
Verplank maintains dock frontage on the Grand River in Ferrysburg and along Lake Macatawa in Holland and works with several shipping companies on the Great Lakes. The company receives dry-bulk commodities by self-unloading vessels and construction materials, which it places on trucks and hauls to various locations.
“It just helps all the way around,” he said of the higher water levels. “When you have a narrow passage in a river, it gives them a little more room to navigate.”
All of the Great Lakes currently have higher water levels than they did last year, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
As of April 5, Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are connected via the Straits of Mackinac, measured six inches above the level at the same time a year ago, or 20 inches higher than the long-term average. USACE forecasts predict them to rise another four inches over the next month.
According to USACE forecasts, the water levels are expected to get a boost from warmer April weather, melting the remaining snowpack throughout the Lakes Michigan-Huron basin, thereby increasing spring runoff into the lakes because of already high soil moisture conditions.
As the Great Lakes’ seasonal water rise continues, Lakes Michigan and Huron are projected to go up 10 inches by July, or 7 inches higher than last summer and about 9-12 inches lower than the previous record high, which was set in 1986.
Despite the higher water, the USACE still plans to dredge several harbors this spring and summer, said Chris Schropp, chief of the construction office at the Corps’ Grand Haven Field Office.
“We still have to maintain the harbors,” Schropp said. “It’s maintenance dredging.”
Those include commercial harbors in Grand Haven, Holland, St. Joseph and Ludington.
Recreational harbors include New Buffalo, South Haven, Saugatuck, Arcadia, Pentwater, Frankfort, White Lake and Leland. Some of the recreational harbors only get dredged to a depth of 8-12 feet, so any extra water is welcome.
“Higher water levels certainly help the recreational harbors for the boaters, especially the sailboats that draft a lot,” he said.
Schropp said the levels are good for recreational boating and marinas because boats can access shallower channels, lakes and slips.
However, high water also can pose problems for waterfront homeowners and beachgoers because of shoreline erosion and the loss of beachfront. Marinas also face issues if they have fixed boat docks instead of floating docks; likewise, shipping docks take an added beating from the higher water and waves.
“Our docks suffer the same erosions problems,” said Matthews at Verplank Dock. “We have to make sure everything is up to snuff and safe.”
The other issue is water coming over the top of pier structures, which can be a hazard for pier walkers and cause damage, the USACE’s Schropp said. When water levels were low a few years ago, a lot of infrastructure dating to the 1930s with original wood substructures got exposed to air, causing the wood to rot.
“We are seeing a lot of damage from wave action due to that deterioration,” Schropp said.
In Muskegon, the ice and high waves have damaged the south breakwater pier over the last couple of winters. The decay of the substructure allowed water to get in, washing out some of the stone fill inside and popping out some of the concrete caps, Schropp said. A project to repair the pierhead is planned for late fall or next spring.
Erosion also has affected Muskegon Lake and Muskegon County’s Heritage Landing Park in downtown, said Bob Lukens, community development director at the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission helped secure grant funding to fight the erosion and create a softer, graded shoreline around the water inlet that goes under the park’s foot bridge. The erosion poses a safety concern for people attending concerts and visiting the park.
“It’s getting hit by those northwest waves that come in and the ice that piles up out there too,” he said. “It cut away a pretty good chunk.”
Lukens believes there will still be plenty of beach this summer at city and state parks in the county. Muskegon’s Pere Marquette Beach is fairly flat with nothing behind it, but those with dune ecosystems, such as at Hoffmaster State Park and Lake Harbor Park, are in constant flux and do experience beach erosion, he added.