The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 23, 2013

Drought, low water hurt lake shipping

By CARL E. FEATHER
Star Beacon

ASHTABULA —  Harbors filled with sediment and sustained drought conditions in the Midwest continue to take their toll on the efficiency of the Great Lakes shipping industry.

The Lake Carriers’ Association is reporting U.S.-flag lakers carried 89.5 million tons of dry-bulk cargo last year, a decrease of 4.6 percent compared to 2011. The 2012 season also was 1.5 percent below the five-year average for the U.S. carriers.

Coal was a major player in pulling down the numbers. U.S. flag carriers moved 17.6 tons on the lakes last year, a decrease of 13.1 percent from the prior year’s tonnage. The decrease in coal shipments is due to much less coal moving from U.S. ports like Ashtabula and Toledo, to power plants in Canada, which is phasing out coal-burning power generation plants.

Long-term drought and poor harbor maintenance, the “dredging crisis,” are to blame for the decrease in other cargos. The Lake Carrier’s Association reports that shipments of limestone from U.S. ports fell 2.4 percent in 2012, when compared to 2011. At Canadian quarries, the decrease in loadings was 9 percent compared to the prior year. Falling water levels and the dredging crisis necessitate lighter cargo loads, which makes freighters less efficient and each trip more expensive.

The Transportation Institute notes one inch of lost capacity due to decreased water level results in a loss of 50 to 270 tons of capacity for ships that sail the lakes. A 1,000-foot freighter, capable of lifting 70,000 tons, has to sail about 8,000 tons light because harbor and channel depths are inadequate.

The term “Great Lakes dredging crisis” was coined in 2006 by the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, a shipping advocacy group. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved since then, and the droughts have caused even lower lake levels than existed when the alarm was first sounded. At least one commercial harbor, Dunkirk, N.Y., had to shut down in 2005 because the harbor was too shallow for ships. Meanwhile, Glen Nekvasil of the Lake Carriers Association estimates that 17 million cubic yards of sediment clog the 60 commercial ports the federal government maintains.

The new year does not bring much hope for improvement. Nekvasil said the record iron ore cargo through the Soo Locks was 72,300 tons; The largest cargos so far in 2013 were slightly over 60 tons.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for harbor dredging on the Great Lakes; funding comes through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which has a surplus of about $3 billion.

The institute estimates that at least $200 million is needed to restore proper harbor and channel dimensions in the Greek Lakes systems. Last month, U.S. Senators Amy Klobouchar and Al Franken called upon colleagues to address the Great Lakes water crisis by appropriating more money for dredging. The senators, both from Minnesota, said the drought of 2012 and the lack of dredging are threatening jobs in the Great Lakes.

“This year’s drought has put many harbors and channels on the Great Lakes at risk of becoming impassable in the months to come. I pressed my colleagues to include funding to dredge these waterways because we need to make sure our shipping industry, and the people it employs, are safe from harm,” the Minnesota senators stated in a letter to colleagues.

Ashtabula City Port Authority Chairman Ron Kister said dredging is a problem in the Ashtabula River, especially farther up the river toward West 24th Street. The upper stretch is being dredged, but that work stopped in December and won’t resume until May. He said there are places where it is “almost impossible” to get a watercraft through the low water.

The lower portion of the river was dredged several years ago as part of the massive Superfund Site cleanup work. Kister said he has not received any concerns from users of the coal or Pinney Dock company docks regarding low water level being a limitation to traffic at the docks.

The bright spot in lake shipping was from the Great Lakes iron ore industry, which moved 61.6 million tons in 2012, a slight improvement over 2011. Shipments from U.S. ports, however, showed a 2.5 percent decrease compared to the prior year. Overall, shipments from U.S. ports totaled 53.7 million tons (3.7 million tons of which were loaded at Quebec City for loading into oceangoing vessels).

Despite the stronger numbers for iron ore, the fleet is not opperating at optimum efficiency because of the dredging crisis. A 1,000-foot freighter that operated at 2012 draft levels had to make four trips to haul 245,000 tons of ore. In 1997, when the lakes were near their record depths, only 3.4 trips would have been required to move that same quantity of cargo.