ALPENA - As water levels in Lake Huron rise from a record low in January, shippers face restrictions at some ports and lawmakers are working to put more money into dredging projects.
Lafarge's Alpena plant is currently able to fully load most of the freighters that load cement at its docks, Plant Manager Paul Rogers said. However, the company may have to dredge if lake levels continue to drop. Another alternative would be to leave cement behind, loading the boats only as far as water levels allow.
"Ultimately what that amounts to is an increase in cost," he said. "That will lead to an increase all down the chain."
While freighters are able to get to and from Alpena, some of Lafarge's other terminals around the lakes have restrictions, Rogers said. Boats might have to unload some of their cargo at deeper terminals before going to the restricted ones.
"We're able to manage our way around it, but it would be a lot easier and we could probably be a bit more efficient if we didn't have to manage around the lake levels as much as we do," he said.
Earlier in the shipping season, Carmeuse Lime and Stone's Calcite Operation was feeling the effects of low lake levels, Plant Manager Ray LeClair said. While levels at the plant currently measure at datum, a benchmark for measuring lake levels, that's after rising by about 19 inches.
Light-loading can cost shippers significantly, Lake Carriers' Association Glen Nekvasil said. On the biggest ships, which measure 1,000 feet or longer, losing one inch of draft could mean leaving 270 tons of cargo behind. Smaller ships have to leave out 75 to 90 tons for each lost inch of draft.
"At the beginning of the season, the biggest ones were losing 10,000 tons for each trip," he said. "The water has come up a little bit, so now they're losing more in the area of 8,000 tons."
Even carrying less than full loads, shipping by freighter saves customers $3.6 billion a year compared to using trains or trucks, Nekvasil said. They're an efficient mode of transporting bulk freight, like stone, cement, salt, coal and iron ore.
Climate is the major factor behind low water levels, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Craig Stow said. Water levels are balanced between precipitation and evaporation, so prolonged dry spells and lots of evaporation from the lakes can cause a system-wide drop.
All the Great Lakes, except Ontario, saw a big drop after 1997, Stow said.
"Since that time, they've been at a somewhat lower level, and on top of that level, we have the usual seasonal fluctuations," he said.
Lake levels rise in the spring, then drop again in the fall, Stow said. A mild winter with little snow was followed by a hot, dry summer in 2012. In the fall, high levels of evaporation compounded a seasonal drop, leading to a record low of 576.02 feet above sea level in January, 2.78 feet below the long-term average and 5.28 feet below the record average for January, set in 1987.
Other factors affect lake levels, like withdrawals by cities and dredging in the St. Clair River, Stow said.
Lakes Huron and Michigan experienced a permanent 10-16 inch drop after St. Clair River was dredged, John Allis, United States Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes hydraulics and hydrology office chief, said. The two lakes are considered to be one since they're tied together at the Straits of Mackinac. Plans to build compensating structures to hold some of this water back were shelved due to lack of funding, and periods of high waters experienced after dredging stopped in 1962.
While the USACE and NOAA scientists can't change rainfall or evaporation, legislators are working to fix something humans can control: dredging. The Great Lakes have about 18 million cubic yards of sediment clogging ports and channels, and it would cost the Corps about $200 million to remove it. Meanwhile, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has about $8 billion for federal waterways projects nationwide, money that isn't always spent on harbor maintenance.
Steven Rose, assistant chief of operations for the USACE Detroit District, said this money goes to federally designated waterways, rather than privately owned or maintained ports or channels. Alpena's Thunder Bay River is one, and each year the Corps carries out a plan as to which harbors will be dredged.
"Part of that process is, we take that money that's appropriated by Congress and do that work for those projects," he said.
Sen. Carl Levin is pushing to ensure the fund is spent as intended. He introduced a bill earlier this year that would give lawmakers the ability to call a point of order if the money is about to be spent on other things, according to a letter seeking support for the bill.
Rep. Dan Benishek also is part of a push to bring more money to the Great Lakes. He's co-sponsored a House resolution that would treat the lakes as a system, rather than making each port compete individually for funds. Introduced by Rep. Candice Miller the bill has bipartisan support for what Benishek believes will help save and create jobs around the Great Lakes.
"It's easy to argue the Great Lakes system is important," he said. "You can cite the traffic, the tonnage and number of vessels in total. By putting the money into the system as a whole, we can make sure we get a share of that money."