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Warming drops Great Lakes toward historic lows
PORT HURON, Michigan (CNN) -- The Great Lakes are the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. But the water levels on three of them could reach record lows this summer.
Lakes Huron, Michigan and Erie have dropped 3.5 feet since 1997 and are on pace soon to reach historic low marks set in 1964. Climatologists blame the situation a number of unusually warm years, a trend that shows no sign of letting up.
"Just from Lake Michigan and Huron alone, we've lost 27 trillion gallons of water that have disappeared. And the real problem is there's not water coming in to replace it," said Frank Quinn of the National Oceanic of Atmospheric Administration.
By July, the water level is expected to be about 19 inches below the long-term average.
That's bad news for Paul Decker and his U.S. Coast Guard crew who patrol the waters of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River leading into it.
"There's been people run aground with water depths the way they were. And now they're so much lower we're expecting to have quite a few more boats run aground this year," Decker said.
Big freighters lose tons of money
At Mac and Ray's Marina on Lake St. Clair, which connects Lakes Erie and Huron, many luxury boats remain in their winter shrink-wrap, perched in dry dock, instead of in the water.
The marina had to take expensive action to make the harbor safe. Last year it conducted a major dredge project within its waters.
The dredging of the lake continues. Along Lake Michigan at Traverse City, another marina owner is already counting her potential losses.
"Unless we get some water to come back, it looks like we're going to be down 30 to 50 percent," Kris Mils said.
For the freighters that ply the lakes, the drop in water levels is dangerous and expensive.
"We've lost the ability to carry 2,000 or 3000 tons on some of the 1000-footers (freighters) since last year," said George Ryan, president of the Lake Carriers Association. "That's a loss of about $100,000 on every voyage."
Swimming, fishing could improve
There are some positive results of the lower lake levels. Receding waters are leaving wider beaches in their wake.
"We're probably going to have the best beaches we've had in the Great Lakes in the past 35 years," Quinn said.
And fishing could be enhanced because shallow water promotes the growth of plant life on which certain species thrive.
"The juvenile fish of all sports species feed in that area, so this will open a new habitat for them," said Bob Haas of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
So where did all the water go? Most of it evaporated. Normally a winter's worth of snowpack will melt and replenish the lakes. But the last three winters have been unusually mild, with little snowfall.
The news from the National Weather Service offers little hope for improvement. The long-range forecast calls for a continuation of the trend of dry, mild winters in the region.
Scientists predict that could mean a drop in water levels of another 2 to 3 feet over the next few years -- and no quick turnaround in the Great Lake's lowering tide.
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Great Lakes Information Network
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