May 12, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Great Lakes water levels drop

Great Lakes water levels drop worries boaters, shippers

Lake St. Clair seawalls off Jefferson Avenue in St. Clair Shores tell the tale of this spring's dry weather. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

Each of the Great Lakes, as well as Lake St. Clair, will be lower this summer, and that means headaches for those who use the waters for work and play.

For waterfront homeowners, it will mean the retreat of the lakes from their property. For the beleaguered shipping industry, it will mean the loss of carrying capacity at a time when every ton of cargo counts. For the region's boaters, it will mean a greater need for care entering and leaving their slips.

And in the western portion of Lake Erie, it's likely to bring even more of the troublesome algae that has become an increasing problem along the shores of Michigan and Ohio.

"We're below last year's lake levels across the board," said Keith Kompoltowicz, a meteorologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit. "That's largely due to the very dry conditions we had during the winter and early spring."

The drops are a reversal of two years of improvements. In 2007, Lake Superior reached a record low, and the Michigan-Huron system came close to doing the same. But until this year, the lake levels have steadily risen.

A few inches may not mean much to those who spend little time on or near the Great Lakes. But others know the effects can be more than simply bothersome.

Bloomfield Hills resident Dennis Nagle frequently sails Lake St. Clair and remembers a tough stretch three years ago when he ran aground in unexpectedly shallow waters three times in the same season.

"You just really have to pay attention to where you're going nowadays," he said. "I've also become a big believer in towing insurance."

Algae problems bloom

Until the last few years, Lake Erie had been generally free of major algae problems for more than three decades. But the spread of two different forms of algae recently has raised alarms among residents and researchers, and the drops in water levels may exacerbate the situation this summer.

Algae can form when sunlight penetrates to the nutrients that collect on lake bottoms. With an average depth of 62 feet, Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, making it particularly susceptible to algae.

"If the lake level is down, that's less water for the sun to penetrate," said Thomas Bridgeman, a professor at University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center. "I would say the trend over the last few years has been that it's getting worse. And there's no reason to think that pattern is going to change this year."

The algae has become so bad in the western end of the lake that it is easily visible in satellite images. Boaters find themselves cruising through hundreds of yards of green muck to reach clearer waters far from shore.

Shipping feels the effects

For many in the Great Lakes shipping industry, it may seem like they can't catch a break. The sputtering economy has kept many ships off the water in the last two years as the demand for materials such as iron ore, coal and limestone dropped.

As of November, Great Lakes shippers moved 60.35 million tons in 2009. During the same period in 2008, the industry moved 95.18 million tons -- a drop of nearly 35 percent.

This year, however, there are signs of improvement. By May 1, there were several more vessels shipping on the Great Lakes than the 42 in operation at the same time in 2009. But those ships can't carry as much cargo as they could a year ago because of the lower lake levels, making them less profitable.

"The biggest ships we have lose 270 tons of cargo for each inch of draft they lose," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of corporate communications for the Lake Carriers' Association. "Even smaller boats, like those that bring in cement to Detroit, can lose 70 to 80 tons of cargo per inch.

"It's just another challenge for us in what's already a very challenging time."

Shore recedes from homes

When Ralph Roberts and his wife moved to their home along the Black River in Port Huron nearly 30 years ago, the couple had to raise the height of the seawall at the rear of their property. Increases in the level of the Lake Huron/Michigan system helped raise the level of the connected Black River.

But since then, the lake level drops have filtered down to the river. Now, the edge of the water is 80 feet farther out from the seawall.

"Seems like as soon as we finished, the water started pulling back," said Roberts, 67. "Now, we mow the area between the seawall and the water."

Across Lake Huron, in the Canadian community of Georgian Bay, residents have fretted over dropping lake levels for years. They point to dredging activity conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a half-century ago as one of the reasons more water seems to be leaving the lake via the St. Clair River.

Last year, a study commissioned by the International Joint Commission refuted the idea that dredging was the cause of water loss in Lake Huron. The commission is an independent board of Canadian and U.S. officials that monitors water quality in the Great Lakes.

After two years of increasing water levels, the loss projected for Lake Huron/Michigan this summer reaffirmed residents' belief that the problem is more than just weather patterns.

"We saw the levels come up for the first time in a decade, but now they're right back down again," said Mary Muter, the Georgian Baykeeper, who represents three organizations engaged in protecting the health of Georgian Bay. "It's pretty scary."

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Jack Kramer collects water for algae testing on Lake Erie in early May. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
Captain Paul Pacholski unloads coolers of water samples from Lake Erie and ... (Elizabeth Conley The Detroit News)