Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Great Lakes shore economies dry up with low water

Traverse City (Mark Breederlan, Michigan Sea Grant)
Record low water levels in the Great Lakes are hurting the economies of some harbor towns. Tourist, shipping and fishing industries in the region could suffer as a result. In the Grand Traverse Bay area, the small towns of Suttons Bay and Leland are two examples of the growing problem.  

Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW in Chicago reported for PBS NewsHour that a drop of more than two feet from the average level is "threatening to close the harbor" in Leland, a town that relies heavily on a good tourist summer season to get it through the rest of the year. In Suttons Bay, concrete blocks designed to anchor boats "now sit in just inches of water," Brackett reported, walking along a beach that didn't used to exist.

In an interview with Brackett, Andrew Gronewold of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory cited high water temperatures and increased evaporation for the low water levels. "Now, what is causing the lakes to warm so much? That is something that is going to require some additional research," Gronewold said.

Dredging can keep harbors open, but suffering economies aren't able to keep up with the demand for such maintenance. "You got almost a perfect storm hitting the Great Lakes harbors," Chuck May, chair of the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition, told Brackett. "You've got low water and you've got lack of maintenance, lack of dredging, lack of infrastructure."

The shrinking water levels are also hurting commercial harbors, where low levels affect how much tonnage ships can ship. "For every inch the water level drops, carriers forfeit 8,000 tons of cargo," Brackett reported. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Obama administration has new regulations that mandate that commercial harbors have to be able to handle a million tons to get federal money for dredging. Of the 139 commercial and recreational harbors on the Great Lakes, only 15 now meet this criteria, Brackett reported.

Some area residents say the harbor taxes they pay should go to dredging. "The federal government actually owns these harbors, these channels," May said. "And they actually have a tax called a harbor maintenance tax that they put in place the beginning of 1985 to take care of these harbors. So far, in the past 15 years, they have collected $8 billion dollars that they have not spent on harbors."

Some local residents have given money to help pay for dredging, but the need might outrun their finances, Brackett reported. Scientists have predicted the water levels will keep dropping this winter. (Read more)

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