Lake Superior Shippers Hurt by Low Water Levels

Shippers are having trouble hauling their full cargo loads on Lake Superior because water levels are well below their monthly averages.

The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway system provides the Upper Midwest with a maritime link to markets across the globe, but they are becoming more and more difficult to navigate as water levels are far below their long-term monthly averages.
According to the Pioneer Press, water levels on the Great Lakes are so low that shippers are forced to leave up to 15 percent of their cargo behind. Lake Superior is about 13 inches lower and Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are about 26 inches below average.
Low water levels translate to smaller loads for cargo ships. Commercial ships carrying heavy loads must drop some cargo if water levels fall below certain thresholds.
Dean Haen, the director of Brown County Port and Solid Waste, told the Pioneer Press that each inch of lost water translates to a loss of about 100 tons of cargo.
The drop in water levels can be especially damaging to the Duluth-Superior port, which is the largest port on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence System and is essential to the shipping ecosystem. Although the water levels at the Port of Duluth-Superior aren’t as dramatically low as elsewhere, it is important to maintain the efficiency of the port because it provides a significant economic boon for the state. (To learn more about the economic input of the port in a recent story by Twin Cities Business columnist Gene Rebeck, click here.)
According to a 2011 economic assessment by Pennsylvania-based consultancy Martin Associates, the port accounts for $1.5 billion in business revenue for the firms directly dependent on cargo handled in the port, as well as 11,510 direct and indirect jobs in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
In 2012, nearly 23 percent of all outgoing cargo shipments through the Seaway were out of the Duluth port, Craig Middlebrook, acting administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, recently told Twin Cities Business. And it has recently increased: Between 2011 and 2012, overseas shipments went up by about 50 percent.
However, the troubling water levels didn’t stop the Duluth-Superior port from recently receiving its earliest arrival ever of the first ocean-going vessel, or “Saltie,” of the shipping season. According to Northland’s News Center, the Federal Hunter arrived on March 29, which was the earliest arrival to date for a full transit of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system. The Federal Hunter came across the Atlantic from Germany, stopping in Quebec before landing in Duluth-Superior.
Looking ahead, the lakes are expected to rise two to four inches in the next month. Until then, the Chamber of Marine Commerce is looking for viable engineering solutions to curb the problem and Michigan Governor Rick Synder recently signed legislation providing $21 million in emergency funds to dredge state harbors, according to the Pioneer Press.