Marina operators prep for low water levels

TRAVERSE CITY – Last fall’s predictions of continued decline in the level of Lake Michigan appears to be more than just water under the bridge. The predictions have, in fact, become reality. “Water levels are continuing to decline,” says Christopher Wright, executive director of the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Initiative in Traverse City. “One forecast I’ve seen predicts Lake Michigan’s June levels to be 8-10 inches below that of June 1999.”

And with Lake Michigan’s 1999 levels down 17 inches from 1998 levels, this year’s trend is just bad news on top of bad news.

The Great Lakes shipping industry, for instance, had already resorted to “short-shipping,” reducing their loads of iron ore, coal and other cargo by thousands of tons per trip to reduce their draft. It now appears this year’s shipping season will require similar adjustments. Economically, that translates into more trips to deliver the same amount of cargo, requiring more fuel and additional wages.

Also feeling the negative effects of the low water levels is the recreational industry boating industry. Marina operators who last year were forced to reconfigure boat slips and add buoys to accommodate boaters will likely find themselves resorting to similar remedies this year, and then some.

Al MacDonald of Kal Excavating in Omena thinks marina operators may have learned a lesson from 1999’s difficult season.

“Dredging requests are already up 50-60 percent over last year,” MacDonald says. “I think municipalities are taking things more seriously this year.”

MacDonald says Suttons Bay Harbor has already contracted with Kal Excavating for dredging. Plans call for removing 18,000 yards of bottom.

“Boating season is short,” he explains. “Everybody wants it done early.”

And with the state Department of Environmental Quality toughening permit requirements for dredging, marina operators who anticipate dredging needs should proceed as soon as possible. The permit process is requiring six to eight weeks, according to MacDonald.

Margo Marks, harbormaster for the village of Elk Rapids, is also preparing for the coming season.

“I’ve seen a report from the (Army) Corp. of Engineers predicting lower levels,” she says, adding that she’s anticipating “some challenges.”

Like Suttons Bay, Elk Rapids has already contracted out dredging, a procedure they’ve found necessary to do every two years, due to sand build-up from the river current. Now they find themselves fighting both sediment and declining water levels.

“We’ll be dredging to get the sand out, but you can only go so deep,” Marks explains. “Once you hit clay there’s not much you can do.”

And with fixed, rather than floating docks, Marks says they’ll have to lower them even farther than they did last year, a time-consuming and expensive process.

There’s also the reality that docks can only be lowered so far–it’s the water depth that’s critical. Marks thinks Elk Rapids will be able to accommodate most recreational boaters this year, keeping impact on tourism minimal.

“We’ll be okay for most power boats,” she predicts. “Others, like some sailboats requiring more than four to five feet of water, may have problems.”

MacDonald, too, is concerned with the very low water levels.

“I’ve seen some slips with anywhere from six inches to two feet of water in them, he says. “That’s fine for lawn chairs, but not for boats.”

But Wright, from the Watershed Initiative, foresees little negative impact on the boating industry.

“I don’t sense that the lower water levels will impact the water recreational activity the way lower snowfall impacts the skiing industry,” he says. “I don’t think you can draw that analogy.”

Of greater worry, Wright says, is the possibility of over-dredging and its impact on near-shore habitat.”If that activity increases and sustains, then there’s that concern,” he says.

According to Wright, the Great Lakes reached a record-high level in 1986 and remained relatively high into the early 1990s. Because we grew acclimated to those levels, he says, we need to realize that what we’re now seeing is a fall-off from above average levels.

But even hydrologists were caught off-guard, he added: “The amount of change in such a short period of time is what’s significant.”

Marks remains upbeat, too, despite the challenges that await her and other marina operators.

“Time will tell,” she says. “If nothing else, there’ll be more beach available.” BIZNEWS