Business

Low water on Great Lakes threatens small harbor towns

A stranded pontoon boat is docked in Portage Lake. (Associated Press)
A stranded pontoon boat is docked in Portage Lake. (Associated Press)

ONEKAMA, Mich. – The Great Lakes, the world’s biggest freshwater system, are shrinking because of drought and rising temperatures, a trend that accelerated with this year’s almost snowless winter and scorching summer.

Water levels have fallen to near-record lows on Lakes Michigan and Huron, while Erie, Ontario and Superior are below their historical averages. The decline is causing heavy economic losses, with cargo freighters forced to lighten their loads, marinas too shallow for pleasure boats and weeds sprouting on exposed bottomlands, chasing away swimmers and sunbathers.

Some of the greatest suffering is in small tourist towns that lack the economic diversity of bigger port cities. Yet they are last in line for federal money to deepen channels and repair infrastructure.

“How do you like our mud bog?” Township Supervisor Dave Meister asked on a recent afternoon, gesturing toward the shoreline of Portage Lake, part of a 2,500-acre inland waterway that connects Onekama to Lake Michigan. A wide expanse that normally would be submerged is now an ugly patchwork of puddles, muck and thick stands of head-high cattails.

In bygone days, friendly members of Congress would slip money into the federal budget to dredge a harbor. But so-called earmarks have fallen out of favor.

Lake Michigan’s level at the end of October was more than 2 feet below its long-term average. The Corps of Engineers says without heavy snowfall this winter, the lake may decline to its lowest point since record-keeping began in 1918.

Many places around the Great Lakes are having similar problems. At least a dozen boats have run aground this year in Lake Ontario around the harbor in Orleans County, N.Y. The state of Wisconsin warned boaters to watch for stumps. What makes the situation particularly frustrating for small Great Lakes communities is that a fund for dredging and other harbor maintenance already exists. It’s generated by a tax on freight shipped at U.S. ports and raises about $1.5 billion a year. But about half of the money is diverted to the treasury for other uses.

“Many of these towns wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for their ports,” said Mike O’Bryan, chief of engineering and technical services for the Detroit district office.



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