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Environment & Energy

Record-High Great Lakes Water Levels Offer New Problems and Benefits for Cargo Ships

St. Lawrence Seaway
St. Lawrence Seaway

On the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, water levels are near record highs. For cargo ships, that brings challenges and opportunities.

Bruce Burrows, president of the bi-national Chamber of Marine Commerce, says $50 million in economic activity is generated each day on the St. Lawrence Seaway. But that's being disrupted because a large dam is releasing record sustained outflows from Lake Ontario

"The output is about equivalent to four Olympic swimming pools per second of water now flowing," he says.

The high outflow from the Moses-Saunders hydroelectric dam is meant to reduce flooding along the lakeshore. But captains are dealing with strong currents and speed restrictions, and Burrows says that has slowed cargo deliveries.

But elsewhere along the Great Lakes, the higher water levels are helping ships. 

For example, there's less risk of running aground, says Capt. George Haynes of the Lakes Pilot Association. And in Lake Erie, Haynes says the deeper water allows freighters to load ships with more cargo than he's ever seen before. 

"There ’s more economic benefit, more efficiency for the freighters moving cargo, so it’s good in that way."

Whether on Lake Erie or the St. Lawrence River, Haynes says, captains are proceeding with caution because of high currents and the risk of causing wakes that could cause damage along the shoreline.

Great Lakes Today is a collaboration of WBFO Buffalo, ideastream Cleveland and WXXI Rochester. For more stories, got to great.