Great Lakes water levels a huge issue in 2013

Bill HiltsAs we move all too quickly into a new year, one of the biggest issues we will have to contend with – and something we may not ultimately have any control over – is the water levels in the Great Lakes. Like the proverbial song about the foot bone being connected to the leg bone and so on, most people don’t seem to realize the big picture when it comes right down to it.

Let’s start with the how it affects the harbors around the Great Lakes. For years, we have been pushing to dredge the many shallow draft harbors in Lake Ontario. Places like Wilson Harbor and Oak Orchard at Point Breeze have been reporting boating accidents as a result of the lower water levels, some of which have caused bodily injury. Wilson claims to have lost a full month of the boating season due to the combination of lower water levels and the siltation in the harbor.

For Wilson, that doesn’t just mean fewer boaters on the water. It also means less revenue coming into the marinas and other businesses that survive on the boating industry in those small lakeshore communities. One marina lost $2,000 in diesel sales as a result of the boating limitations – revenue that many of the businesses can’t afford to lose.

Over in Olcott Beach, none of the six launch ramps can be used right now – the water is just too low to have a vehicle back a trailer into one of the launch bays. Granted, this time of year is normally a bit lower, but it’s super low right now, and that also affects the tributaries.

Eighteenmile Creek flows through Olcott and with the lake being so low, the water doesn’t seem to stick around as long … which impacts the fish entering into the system, the numbers of fishermen enjoying the resource and the economic impact it has on the area. If there is any natural salmonid reproduction going on, it would certainly affect success with the limited water flow.

Other streams are being affected by the lower water levels in the lake, too. Combined with the light precipitation, the mouths of the smaller streams like Keg Creek were never fully opened going into the fall. As a result, a huge barrier exists between the stream and the lake at the mouth, meaning that the fish aren’t even able to make their annual migration up into the stream.

As long as we're on the subject of water levels, the International Joint Commission is pushing for a new water level initiative that will control what happens in Lake Ontario. Plan BV 7 is an environmental-friendly idea that calls for higher highs and lower lows in the water level department. If this current level is an example of what the “lower lows” would be about, without the dredging process in place many harbors would be dead in the water – quite literally.

Taking that a step further, if guys can’t get their boats in the water, they won’t be buying a license to go fishing. Less money in the Conservation Fund means less money for fisheries programs. I think you can see where this is going. In addition, those who do try to push the envelope and get their boat on the water have a much better chance of damaging their boat. I know of one individual who needed to purchase a new $20,000 motor when he hit bottom several times in the Niagara River trying to get his boat out of the water – and that was one of the smaller boats. Bigger charter boats had problems getting out of the water in Wilson and Olcott and, if they waited too long, some hull damage occurred.

If you're wondering where the money would come from for dredging, there is a designated “slush fund” on the federal level called the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund – with $6.2 billion sitting in it. But as the “fiscal cliff” looms in the near future, no one seems to want to spend money like this, even though it would revitalize and protect an industry on the Great Lakes. Individual states should be playing hardball with the federal government and doing everything they can to come up with the funding necessary to keep the harbors open.

While landowners were certainly happy about the lower water levels in Lake Ontario (especially when Hurricane Sandy hit the end of October), they should be prepared to make up the monetary differences when less tax revenue is coming into the coffers because of less tourism to the lakeshore areas. In addition, if BV 7 comes through, those water level experts are also asking for “higher highs.” This is everybody’s problem and we should be working together to try and correct it as quickly as possible. The spring fishing season will be here before we know it.

Categories: New York – Bill Hilts Jr

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