Low water, high electric costs and cuts to Great Lakes shipping profits

Paul Tregutha ran aground in the St. Marys River this summer. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Low water and continued dredging problems on the Great Lakes are burdening many industries.

Shippers are forced to go with lighter loads, utilities face unforeseen operations costs and recreational boaters quit the season earlier than usual

Conditions are getting worse earlier. The lowest water usually happens in January, said Tom O’Bryan, area engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which monitors the levels and reports weekly updates.

“But this year we are in a downward cycle, which means we can reach the lowest level in the lakes starting in November.”

That means less cargo shipping, less boating and less fish for people to eat, O’Bryan said.  

Owners of marinas and charter fishing operations worried about long-term revenue. Many boaters were unable to dock and marinas and harbors and were forced to quit the season up to five weeks early.  

Meanwhile, many shipping companies have lightened their loads. Crews are carefully passing through shallow waters and dredging areas to avoid running aground.

“Low water cost us big money and affects our business very badly,” said Mark Barker, president of The Interlake Steamship Co. in Richfield, Ohio.

This summer one of the company’s biggest vessel’s, the  Paul R. Tregutha, grounded on  the St.Marys River that links lakes Superior and Huron.  Several other ships were put on anchor waiting for water level to go up in the St.Marys River.

The Tregutha is one of the oldest and biggest ships on the Great Lakes. It is about 1,000 feet long and was carrying about 62,000 tons of coal.

It took nearly two days for a salvage crew to refloat the boat while it blocked inbound shipping traffic, according to media reports.

Shipping delays and vessel repairs can cost companies from thousands to million dollars, Barker said.

“Many shipping companies are paid per tons and our operations costs are not included,” he said. “It’s not any different from trucks that get stuck on the road.”

The water level at some ports and harbors  dictate how much  cargo vessels can carry.

Grand River Navigation Co. , a shipping company based in Avon Lake, Ohio and  operating in lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior, is loading less cargo.

Every port is different and in some places the water is only 20 feet above the sea level, making it difficult to load and unload the ship, said Mark Rohn, president of the company.

This summer vessels couldn’t get close to the dock at Fairport Harbor in Cleveland and it took longer than expected  to unload the ships, said Edward Wiltse, the company’s vice president of  operations.

“It is not efficient and makes our work less cost effective versus other means of cargo transportation,” Wiltse said.

Great Lakes ships move coal for power generation, iron ore for the steel industry and cement for construction. Freighters also ship salt, sand and grain.

Utility officials worry that the low water increases general operation costs.

Consumers Energy in Jackson, Mich., used smaller vessels to  ship coal on time to  several of it’s power plants, said Jeff Holyfield, director of news and information for the utility. That added to operation costs.

Annette Allen, general manager of Grand Haven Light and Power, in Grand Haven, Mich, said that if the water gets much lower that it will also be adding shipments to lighten loads.

“It will certainly increase our transportation costs which are not foreseen in our budget,” she said.

The company annually ships about  1 million tons of cargo, mostly coal for power generation.

Timely dredging of harbors is another major financial obstacle for shipping companies, Allen said.

Some harbors are not dredged on time, forcing shippers to take different routes or deliver cargo in several trips.

“Companies are forced to spend more money than they should,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice –president of the Lake Carriers Association.

According to Nekvasil, both the water and dredging crisis impacted the coal trade in August. It accounted for 64,678 tons, well below the record 70,903 tons set in August 1997.

The Lake Carrier Association has called on the federal government to increase the budget for dredging harbors and channels in the Great Lakes.

The association’s  annual report indicates that only 17 of the 63 federally maintained ports are being dredged this year.

“The money is there, we just need to get Washington to spend it for the intended purpose,” Nekvasil said.

The Lake Carriers Association represents 17 American companies that operate 57 U.S-flag vessels on the Great Lakes. Collectively members transport more than 115 million tons of cargo each year.

  • Tom

    C’mon folks wake up! Don’t you realize that dredging only exacerbates an already bad situation? That’s why dredging that had started in the 1950′s was stopped back in the ’60s and ’70s in the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and Detroit River. The water levels on Lakes Michigan and Huron dropped dramatically as a result of that dredging. Simple physics people. The Corps of Engineers should know better.

  • Joe

    The worst drought the United States ever had started around 1930 and ended around 1937. I definitely would not get overly worried about the situation, but aren’t emergencies such as this one what FEMA was created for? Or maybe only 17 ports and their shipping ways needed dredging.