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Great Lakes Shipping Will Benefit From Higher Water Levels

Projected Boost In Cargo Brings Silver Lining For Ships Slowed By Ice Fields

The Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw escorting a barge through ice fields on Lake Superior
The Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw escorting a barge through ice fields on Lake Superior. Coast Guard News (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Great Lakes water levels are up compared to a year ago, meaning ships will be able to carry more cargo — a silver lining for the ships slowly traversing the ice fields of Lake Superior.

Thanks to all the snow this winter, spring thaw has lifted water levels on all five of the Great Lakes. For the first time in several years, Superior is above its long-term average and lakes Michigan and Huron are up almost a foot from a year ago, albeit still 9 inches below normal.

Duluth Seaway Port facilities manager Jim Sharrow said that will translate into bigger cargoes because the ship’s drafts will be deeper.

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“If that difference continues through the year, that will allow them to make up two lost cargoes per ship,” said Sharrow. “That will go a long ways for making up what was lost here with all this ice.”

Lake Carriers’ Association’s Glen Nekvasil said ships have been bogged down in ice at a time when ice is usually not a problem, meaning significantly deeper water is great news.

“That would be a blessing right now because the way this season has gotten off to such a horrible start because of the ice,” said Nekvasil. “We are really behind the eight ball. We are going to be facing quite a challenge this year, so if we do get a couple of inches more draft because of higher water levels, that’ll be great.”

Sharrow said the economic recovery is driving higher demand for iron ore and coal. Iron ore orders are projected to be up 4 percent this year. “And coal demand (are projected) to be similar,” said Sharrow. “It might be a little bit higher because supplies are so low after such a cold winter around the Great Lakes. So, it’s going to be a very busy year and we don’t know if we’ll be able to make up all the tonnage that was lost.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects water levels will climb even higher in May, up another 2 to 4 inches on all the Great Lakes.