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Dwindling Great Lakes squeeze shipping industry

In December, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron hit record lows, followed by Lake Superior which is the largest freshwater lake in the world. They all remain below their historical averages. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

By Amber Payne, Producer, NBC News

TOLEDO, Ohio -- It’s the 14th straight year of low water levels for the $34 billion shipping industry that relies on the Great Lakes.

And for ships like the Mesabi Miner, that comes at a great cost.

On a recent Saturday the vessel drifted through the Detroit River and docked in Toledo, where the crew began the eight-hour process of unloading 66,000 tons of iron ore, the rounded clay-colored pellets that eventually take shape as steel in cars and refrigerators.

But the Mesabi Miner wasn't carrying a full load because water levels in the Great Lakes are just too low.  On her journey from Duluth, Minn., to Lake Erie, she left 8,000 tons of iron ore behind. 

That amounts to a day's work for an iron ore mine. It’s enough to make 8,000 automobiles, and keep a big auto plant going for two weeks.

"Steel is what drives our economy," said Glen Nekvasil, Vice President of the Lake Carriers' Association.  "And most of the steel in the country is still made in the Great Lakes basin." 

This is an industry where the difference between success and failure is measured in inches. 

"One inch of reduced draft can cost 270 tons of cargo," said Nekvasil.  "And this ship lost about 2.5 feet of draft today."

About 85 percent of the Great Lakes shipping trade is iron ore, coal, and limestone for construction.  The rest is primarily salt, cement, grain, and oil.  And according to the LCA, the Great Lakes shipping system saves customers $3.6 billion annually compared to the other modes of transportation. 

Despite the savings on fuel, lighter loads and fewer trips ultimately mean these costs will filter down to the consumer.

Mark Barker and his family have run the Interlake Steamship Company for 25 years and he is concerned about the domino effect. 

"Less tons but we still have the same operating cost. So if you carry less tons, we have less revenue, equal cost.  Our bottom line gets squeezed," said Barker.

Barker plans to carry fewer tons but take more trips to make up for the loss.

In January, Lake Michigan and Huron hit record lows, followed by Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. Now all three lakes remain well below their historical averages.  Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, however, are both right around their long-term average right now.

Evaporation outpaces precipitation

Interlake's Captain Paul Franks says the toughest part of navigating a massive vessel is the bottle neck in the St. Mary’s River, which connects Lake Superior to both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. 

"On a good day I've probably got about 2.5 to 3 feet underneath me," he explained.  "On a not-so-good day, sometimes as low as 9 inches and it's a real slow methodical process to not run aground and to safely just keep transiting."

NOAA hydrologist Drew Gronewold said there has not been enough rain and snow over the lakes in the winter coupled with an increase in evaporation fueled by warmer water temperatures.

"We're in a period where it's a stand-off between precipitation and evaporation," said Gronewold.  "And evaporation is having a much more significant impact on the system, and particularly the changes, than it used to."

NOAA is also studying whether this could impact fish habitats and coastal wetlands that may be sensitive to long term changes in the water levels. 

Hydrologist Andrew Gronewald explains the changing dynamics of the Great Lakes and what that can mean for surrounding ecosystems.

Hoping for higher water

In St. Joseph, Mich., Russ Clark is in his 27th year running Sea Hawk fishing charters.  When he put his boat in the water at his normal location earlier this season, the bow was touching the bottom. Recently the water level has been better due to rain, but Clark fears this is temporary.

"This is how narrow the channel is," he said pointing west.  "Twenty-five feet over and you're gonna be aground."

There are places he just can't take his clients anymore and Clark says that many of the bigger boats are unable to enter the water this season for fear of getting stuck.

"I think we're all just hoping and confident that the water levels come back," he said.