Shipping Suffers with Drop in Lake Superior's Level Lake Superior is experiencing some of the lowest water levels recorded in 80 years. The shallow water is an inconvenience for recreational boaters, and an expensive problem for commercial shippers.
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Shipping Suffers with Drop in Lake Superior's Level

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Shipping Suffers with Drop in Lake Superior's Level

Shipping Suffers with Drop in Lake Superior's Level

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now to the landscape of the upper Midwest where the biggest of the five Great Lakes is shrinking - in volume anyway. The low water is causing problems for weekend sailors and fishermen. And as Bob Kelleher reports from the western tip of Lake Superior, the impact is especially serious for shipping companies whose massive freighters transport coal and iron ore.

BOB KELLEHER: Lake Superior is by far the deepest of the Great Lakes, but it's not quite as deep as it used to be. A lingering drought has pushed Superior down some 18 inches from the base level considered normal. It's a foot lower than it was just a year ago. A month ago, the lake surface almost broke the record low set in 1926. That kind of a drop doesn't show much in the lake's deep interior but it's obvious near the shorelines and in the harbors.

(Soundbite of noise)

KELLEHER: A recent sunny afternoon in Duluth, Minnesota, was perfect weather to launch recreational boats at the Harbor Cove Marina. But some of the powerboats are getting their propellers stuck in the mud. Marina manager Zach Crosby says some of the sailboats won't get off land this summer.

Mr. ZACH CROSBY (Manager, Harbor Cove Marina): I have probably six sail boats that won't be able to go in at all because it's just too shallow. They draw too much water with, you know, they have a big keel and these are boats that don't fit on trailers. Some of them can't even be trucked because they're too tall. They're pretty much stuck here until the water comes up. I have several folks who are anxiously awaiting rain.

KELLEHER: Duluth's Minnesota Point is essentially a barrier island that forms Lake Superior's far western end. In places, the harbor side of the point is just drying up. Long brown fingers of mud are showing up, sprinkled with timbers and tires and the odd junk that's accumulated over years, unseen and underwater, until now.

Across the harbor is Superior Wisconsin's Midwest Energy Resources terminal, where Montana coal is loaded into ships for transport to the east. Fred Shusterich manages the facility. From the terminal dock dozens of feet above the cold water, Shusterich points out things he's never seen before.

Mr. FRED SHUSTERICH (President, Midwest Energy Resources Company, Superior Terminal): Well, right over south of our dock here, there's an island between the dock in our shoreline. I've never seen that. I've never seen the island. There's a lot of pilings sticking out from old docks, abandoned docks to the east of us that I've never seen. More of our dock's support filing is exposed. I've never seen the water this low.

KELLEHER: A stream of shiny dark coal floods into the gaping holds of thousand-foot long lake freighter. Shusterich says the huge ships are loading less coal than they used to. They're loading light to avoid hitting bottom — especially on the sharp rocks in the St. Mary's River, which connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron. Shusterich says the big ships are leaving a lot of coal behind. Every inch of water counts.

Mr. SHUSTERICH: So on a thousand-footer, one inch is about - one inch of draft is about 250 to 267 tons, depending on the vessel hull configuration. So historically, from high water levels, we're down about 18 inches in the system, in the Duluth as controlled by the St. Mary's river. That's 4,500 tons of vessel.

KELLEHER: It's the same story at the port's ore docks, the boat iron ore for steel mills in places like Cleveland and Chicago. Port Director Adolf Ojard says it takes more ships to do the same job.

Mr. ADOLF OJARD (Port Director, Duluth Seaway): Just last year, we required 42 more ships to load at our port, to handle the comparable or same amount of tonnage. Last year every ship loaded, on average, 681 tons lighter than it did the previous year.

KELLEHER: And that he says drives up the cost of shipping, plus the cost of coal fired electricity and even steel. There are signs, though, that a long drought might be easing. April is a little weather than normal. But it's too early to declare the drought over. And even with typical precipitation, it could take years to restore the level on a lake as vast as Superior.

For NPR News, I'm Bob Kelleher in Duluth.

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