Low Water

June 5, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Farmers’ tractors are kicking up a lot of dust in the Midwest this year – the warmest and in many states, the driest, winter on record has produced drought conditions in the Midwest from Indiana through Nebraska. Recent rains have helped with the topsoil, but on this farm near Renssalear, Indiana, Kendall Culp says it’s not the topsoil he’s worried about.

KENDALL CULP: Well, there’s been no recharge of our subsoil during the last year. Last summer, we were five or six inches short on rainfall, and we’ve had the driest spring that we’ve had in recent history, so yes, we do have plenty of moisture on the surface, but in the subsoil, which is what needs to grow and sustain a crop during the summer to get through don’t have that right now.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A warm spring allowed Culp to get his corn in early, but now he worries about the impact of the dry subsoil on his yield, as he keeps his eye on the rest of the country.

KENDALL CULP: If this is more of a localized drought, and we have poor yields but other parts of the country are able to produce enough corn to make up for our shortfall, then the price is not going to be high. So we’re going to lose on both ends that way.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The outlook across the U.S. shows drought conditions in four major areas. The national drought policy commission says crop losses, water shortages, and wildfires can be expected in those regions. Wildfires have ravaged the southwestern drought area, causing millions of dollars in damage. In the Midwest, concern over crop losses pushed corn and soybean futures to 17-month highs in May on the Chicago Board of Trade, though late May rains brought prices down somewhat. County Indiana Extension agent Mike Manning says farmers are just beginning to recover from some of the worst farm prices in history. Last year, prices for the four top commodities– corn, soybeans, cattle, and pork– were lower than the cost of production. Now, he says, drought could cut into this year’s yields.

MIKE MANNING: Right now, if a person from the city came out and they would look around, they would feel pretty confident that we are not short on moisture. But nonetheless, the subsoil is fairly dry. And we feel like that if… if in fact we did have rainfall that stopped or was short, that we could find ourselves sitting on a ticking time bomb that might be waiting to go off.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The land is not all that is affected by the drought. Despite May storms, the lack of rain over the last several years has had a huge impact on the Midwest’s best-known natural resource, the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan has had the largest two-year drop in water levels ever recorded. The low water has made beach- goers happy. Lake Michigan beaches are the widest they have been in years. But for those on the water, the low levels have meant trouble. The shipping industry has been hit the hardest.

LARS BOUMAN: Well, actually right in here, there’s shallow water.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Captain Lars Bouman has to figure out the best way to navigate his cargo ship down the Calumet River in South Chicago, into Lake Michigan. The president of the shipping company that handles Marine logistics knows it won’t be easy.

PARKER MELLINGHAUSEN: We are finding things on the bottom of the rivers that nobody knew existed before, and we usually find them in an accident that’ll punch a hole in the side of a ship, or… In this river here, so far we haven’t had any serious accidents, but we’re having situations with loaded ships in transiting are shearing off because of hitting sand banks.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Below-normal levels of rain and snow are the biggest cause of the low lake levels. High temperatures have caused faster evaporation of the water that is there.

LARS BOUMAN: It’s the lowest that I can recall in my lifetime, and certainly the lowest in my position here as captain or as a navigating officer with Canadian shipping lines.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Captain Bouman was in port loading up his ship with petroleum coke for a six-day trip through the Great Lakes to Montreal. Once out of Lake Michigan, he has to worry about water on the St. Clair River, where Lake Huron connects to Lake Erie. The next hurdle will be the Welland Canal connecting Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. To get through, he will have to cut down on his load.

LARS BOUMAN: Through the Welland Canal we would take 32,500 tons. Today we will probably be taking out around 29,000 tons. So consequently we are looking at 3,000 tons, ballpark figure, that we’re not carrying.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In a normal year, Great Lakes Ships transport 125 million tons of cargo through the largest freshwater system in the world. This year the Lake Carriers Association estimates that will leave ten million tons of cargo on the dock because of low lake levels. That adds up to a projected $30 million loss.

PARKER MELLINGHAUSEN: It’s not the first cargo, the first ton that you load that pays the… That makes the profit. It’s the last tons. And with the lower water, you get, you know… Pretty quickly you get closer to break even.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The impact reaches around the globe.

LARS BOUMAN: You are shipping some product from Japan or from Europe, and you say, “well, I want to make a delivery to Chicago,” and they say, “well, the water’s down, you know?” And they say, “oh, you mean I can’t fill my ship up here in the LaHavre, France, or Genoa, Italy, or whatever?” “No, you’re going to have to come less.” And some of them will probably think twice whether or not they’re going to making the trip.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It’s not just the commercial shippers that are losing money, recreational boat owners across the great lakes and the facilities that serve them are being hurt as well. The low water means marinas around the country are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. On a normal year, all these slips would be filled with boats. But right now, the water behind me is only about four inches deep. Empty slips, docks hanging above the water– it all means over $100,000 in lost revenues for this Michigan City, Indiana, Marina, where the water is 14 inches lower than it was last year. As in most places around the Great Lakes, pleasure boats are stored off the water for the winter. The trick this year has been getting the boats upriver to the harbor. Assistant harbormaster Scott Westphal was carefully guiding this sailboat that needs five feet of water up a river that has been as low as four feet.

SCOTT WESTPHAL: Almost every sailboat that comes up, we can add about an hour to the process of getting them upstream.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Across the lake in Chicago, tourist boats that line up along Navy pier have had to find creative ways to get passengers to boats now much lower in the water.

STACE WISELOGAL: We’ve been able to modify. We used to load on the lower deck; now we’re loading on the upper deck.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: City engineers are puzzling over what to do about exposed wooden timbers that rot quickly, once out of the water. Repairs could add millions to shoreline renovation already under way. There are ways to bring some immediate relief to those affected, but most are time- consuming and expensive.

PARKER MELLINGHAUSEN: Our personal hope is that we’re going to be able to get enough funds for the Corps of Engineers to do some dredging. This river would still be safe and economical to operate if we had the dredging, but the corps hasn’t had the money for the last two years, and it looks like they won’t have any done this year effectively.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Longer-range solutions are being considered by the international joint commission, the group charged with resolving boundary waters disputes between the U.S. and Canada. The commission is considering a proposal to let water out of Lake Superior to boost water levels in the lower lakes. But it is a tricky proposition, says Army Corps of Engineer Commander Colonel Jim Hougnon.

COL. JIM HOUGNON: About half of the water of the great lakes is in Lake Superior, and much of it is in storage there. If you let more water out than should be let out, then you’ve mined that water. You take it out of storage, and you can never get it back. If you do that prematurely, and then you continue to have dry conditions, you may need that water downstream more later than sooner, and so we have to be cautious in our approach.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cameron Davis heads the oldest environmental group on the lake, the Lake Michigan Federation. He worries about a loss of water to all the Great Lakes if a diversion from Lake Superior is made. But he says lessons have been Learned from the low water.

COL. JIM HOUGNON: I think the fact that lake levels are so low right now, just because of natural causes, that it visualize and understand that the great lakes are a limited resource. They are not renewable. The water that we have in the great lakes, by and large, we just can’t get back again. So we need to conserve what we have. I think what that means is we need better efficiency standards for the Great Lakes and our use of them.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Davis is hoping the joint commission will consider conservation and efficiency standards this year. The federation and other conservation groups are also working on federal legislation that would develop water conservation principles for the great lakes. Short term, it’s up to Mother Nature, though weather watchers say it will take at least two to three years of normal to heavy rains to bring water levels in the great lakes back to normal.