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Bills could buoy Great Lakes shipping

The Manitowoc, operated by Lower Lakes Transportation Co., floats Nov. 18 in Lake Michigan just outside the Port of Milwaukee. A congressional conference committee is hashing out differences in a pair of bills that would establish the Great Lakes Navigation System and could provide more money for dredging and harbor maintenance. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

The Manitowoc, operated by Lower Lakes Transportation Co., floats Nov. 18 in Lake Michigan just outside the Port of Milwaukee. A congressional conference committee is hashing out differences in a pair of bills that would establish the Great Lakes Navigation System and could provide more money for dredging and harbor maintenance. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Glen Nekvasil’s optimism is obvious.

After 16 years of dealing with below-average water levels, the vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association said, the Great Lakes shipping industry might soon get some uplifting news.

Saddled with a $200 million dredging backlog, the region could receive an infusion of cash after a congressional conference committee hammers out a compromise between two water development bills.

“If the final version is crafted the way we hope,” Nekvasil said, “it will go a long way to relieving the dredging problems.”

In today’s partisan climate on Capitol Hill, achieving compromise is akin to swimming across Lake Michigan with a 50-pound weight tied to your ankle. But considering the stunning ease with which the House (417-3) and the Senate (83-14) passed the bills, and the expectation of White House support, compromise appears to be a fait accompli.

Both bills recognize the Great Lakes for what it has been for more than two centuries: a commercial navigation system. The designation finally would let the lakes compete for federal money with such other shipping waterways as the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers.

“One of the problems is that the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] looks at the Great Lakes as 60 individual ports pitted against each other,” said Nekvasil, whose association represents 17 American companies that operate 57 U.S.-flagged vessels on the Great Lakes. Those ships carry cargo such as iron ore, aggregate, cement, coal, salt and sand.

If the bill becomes law, commercial ports and harbors on the Great Lakes would be treated as a system and “given first consideration” in budgeting for dredging and maintenance, according to House Bill 3080 and Senate Bill 601.

“It’s a huge step forward for the Great Lakes basin,” the bill’s author, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, told the Times Herald of Port Huron, Mich.

So, why is dredging so important?

“It’s the issue,” Nekvasil said.

Water levels vary from port to port, but for a 1,000-foot laker, a depth of 27 feet is ideal. However, some commercial harbors are only 25 feet.

“If we can get to the point where the system is restored to the proper depth, bigger ships can carry more than 70,000 tons,” Nekvasil said. “Right now, they are carrying 65,000 tons per trip.”

The days of running with lighter cargo could be nearing the end for the lakers. Just the thought buoys Nekvasil.

“This has been a long-term battle on the lakes,” Nekvasil said. “We’ve been trying for a number of years to get more money for dredging.

“It looks like this time it’s finally going to happen.”

Jeff Cota is the copy editor at The Daily Reporter. Contact him at jeff.cota@dailyreporter.com.

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