Business suffers as Great Lakes hit record low water levels

A view of Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background. (QMI Agency files)

A view of Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background. (QMI Agency files)

QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:18 AM ET

People who depend on the Great Lakes to make a living are struggling as Huron and Michigan hit their lowest water levels ever recorded.

Levels in the other Great Lakes — Superior, Erie and Ontario — are also unusually low, according to a report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At 175.57 metres, Huron and Michigan are at their lowest since the Corps started keeping records in 1918.

"Not only have water levels on Michigan-Huron broken records the past two months, but they have been very near record lows for the last several months before then," said John Allis, chief of the Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office.

The report blames last year's mild winter and lack of rain, in part, for low levels.

A missing freeze-thaw cycle this winter may also contribute to more record lows this spring.

Bluewater Ferry, which runs between Sombra, Ont., and Marine City, Mich., has already closed one of its ferries.

Operators are also turning away vehicles weighing more than 36,288 kg, including large coach buses.

"With all the rain and snow melting, we got a few more inches back, but if we don't get some heavy snow and rain and ice this winter, we're going to be in trouble next summer," said Rob Dalgety, co-owner of Bluewater Ferry.

Dalgety said Lake Huron needs to rise another foot and a half, so he doesn't have to lower his docks to accommodate the water level, which is looking like a very real possibility.

"If we don't get rain or nothing, we're going to have to redo our docks," he said. "We're starting to make plans because we have to be ready just in case. It's all up to spring now."

Low water also means cargo ships have to carry lighter loads, leaving dock labourers without enough work.

"Groundings will be much more likely and some harbours may close," said the Corps.

Waukegan Harbor near Chicago is already closed to commercial navigation.

"Problems in the upper lakes have negative impacts across all the commercial projects throughout the system, including the ports on Lakes Erie and Ontario," notes the Corps.

It's also affected thousands of cottagers and local marinas that ring the shores of Huron and Michigan, including the popular Georgian Bay area north of Toronto.

Shippers in the U.S. have been pushing Congress for funds to dredge harbours and channels.

- With files from Barbara Simpson


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