Dredging becoming the primary concern for Great Lakes ship operators

Low water levels and inadequate dredging are combining to create severe problems for vessel operators in the Great Lakes.

The Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA) 2012 Annual Report revealed the toll that inadequate dredging has had on the Great Lakes. The report also established the dredging crisis as a primary concern in 2013.

Prolonged drought has pushed water levels on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to record lows, and low water conditions have been compounded by inadequate dredging.

“In 2012, the federal government only dredged 16 out of a total of 60 ports on the Great Lakes,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the LCA. “They had originally planned to dredge only 11 ports until legislators pushed for the additional five… In plain terms, only one in every four ports in the Great Lakes is being dredged.

Shipping efficiency on the Great Lakes is crippled under current conditions: the largest U.S.-flag Great Lakes shippers were leaving behind more than 10,000 tons of cargo by the end of 2012 due to draft limitations. In January 2013, vessels transiting the St. Mary’s River are loading at less than 26 feet, in comparison to the standard draft of 28 feet, according to the LCA Annual Report.

Management of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) revenue, collected annually through a tax on imports at U.S. ports, is the crux of the issue.

“Of the money that goes into the fund, only one of every two dollars is appropriated to its intended purpose — dredging the harbors,” said Nekvasil. The HMTF’s $7 billion surplus is likely being used to mask the size of the federal deficit, he added.

It is estimated that 17 million cubic yards of sediment clog the Great Lakes Navigation System, an amount that could be removed for approximately $200 million, or roughly 2 percent of the HMTF surplus.

The eventual goal of the LCA is to have ships loading at midsummer draft, which ranges from 28 feet to 34 feet, depending on the vessel. In order for that to happen, the Army Corps of Engineers would need to dredge ports throughout the Great Lakes.

“It’s difficult to say what areas need the most help because the problem is widespread,” said Nekvasil. “Right now, the most critical points are probably Fairport Harbor, Cleveland Harbor, and Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, but it’s accurate to say that all ports need work from Cleveland Harbor, one of the biggest, to Holland, Mich., one of the smallest,” he concluded.

Whether the HMTF surplus will be appropriated toward dredging depends on the decisions of Congress this year. In June 2012, 196 members of the House of Representatives and 37 members of the Senate voted for Realizing America’s Maritime Promise (RAMP) Act, a bill that if enacted would guarantee that HMTF money allocated by Congress could only be used for dredging and maintaining ports. The LCA is hopeful the RAMP Act will receive more attention in a non-election year, and noted that most of the lawmakers who voted for the bill returned to Washington in 2013.

By Professional Mariner Staff