The Heat Is Online

Lake Superior at Lowest Level in 75 Years

Lake Superior ebbs to lowest level since 1926

The Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune, Feb. 6, 2001

After three warm and relatively dry winters, the level of Lake Superior has dropped 14 inches below its long term average for February, according to the most recent data released by the Army Corps of Engineers.

It's the lowest the lake has been at this time of the year since 1926 and it's news that doesn't bode well for those who will resume making their livings moving cargo on the water when the Soo Locks open on March 25.

"It's precariously low, it's of major concern and we are helpless to do anything about it," said Duluth. Seaway and Port Authority Executive Director Davis Helberg Monday. Last year at this time Lake Superior was 7 inches below the long-term average for February.

Every inch that the lake drops below its average equals to hundreds of thousands of tons of coal, iron ore and grain that won't be moved from his port during the short shipping season, Helberg said.

Because heavier boats draft deeper in shipping channels and port canals, they have to lighten their loads to move through those shallower zones, Helberg said. The biggest boats — the 1,000-foot lakers — can haul up to 65,000 tons of cargo but in recent years have had to run 8,000 to 10,000 tons below their maximum because of the lower water levels, Helberg said.

That lost tonnage equates to a loss in dollars for the carrier companies as they struggle to keep up the volume they move by either adding boats to their fleets or trying, when possible, to make more runs.

Increased operating costs from additional labor and fuel to run those added trips nibbles further at profits and the lack of water can trickle down to a cargo company's bottom line, according to Glen Nekvasil, vice president of communications for the Lake Carriers Association in Cleveland, Ohio.

"The only thing you can do is start earlier and run later," as the strategy companies use to combat lower water, he said.

Add low water to a decreased demand for taconite from a U.S. steel industry facing an uncertain future, and the big picture for cargo companies doesn't look great.

Companies carrying coal, thanks to Coast Guard ice-breaking ships, were able to work for a solid 12 months from January 2000 to January 2001, making up for some of the decrease in ore cargoes.

"No one likes to see these low lake levels and a reduced demand for ore — there's nothing positive about this but the effect may not be quite as great, as the demand for low sulfur western coal remains to be very high," said Helberg of the Duluth Seaway and Port Authority.

The biggest threat to carriers isn't low water but cheap imported steel, Nekvasil said.

"It's all going to depend on the state of the steel industry because every ton of foreign steel takes two tons of cargo away from our carriers," he said. Nekvasil explained that it takes two tons of ore to make a ton of steel.

The Great Lakes, unlike smaller bodies of water, can't recover a loss in water volume in a single rainy spring or an extra wet summer, said John Love, a physical scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit.

Love compiles historical data with recent weather conditions and projects lake levels for coming months for the corps.

"It has taken us three years to get to this point and it would take three years of solid snowfall winters with moderate summer temperatures and regular spring rains to bring the lake back to normal," Love said.

Copyright 2001, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune