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By:Ben Lefebvre, Macomb Daily Special Writer May 04, 2003

Lake St. Clair is down and scientists are blaming climate.
If you're sick of mowing your lawn, just wait a couple decades. It may become desert.

That's the prediction found in "Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region," a report jointly written by the Ecological Society of America and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The groups, which include scientists from the universities of Michigan and Illinois, based their findings on two years' of research using advanced climate models and historical climate data.

University of Michigan professor George Kling, lead author of the report, said, "Within only three decades, a summer in Illinois may feel like a summer in Oklahoma." If the trends continue, the report said, Michigan may resemble Arizona by the end of the century.

According to reports by the Great Lakes Environment Research Laboratory and the Army Corps of Engineers, during the months of October and November 2002 the Great Lakes experienced higher than normal evaporation. And while it was colder this winter than in recent years, most of the Great Lakes water basin in the United States and Canada received below average precipitation throughout the winter. Higher rates of evaporation would further lower Great Lakes water levels.

Lake St. Clair averages 10 feet with a maximum depth of only 21 feet. Its depth is now 13 inches below average, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

If Kling's report holds true, that would be bad for businesses.

John Cuneo, general manager of All Star Marine in St. Clair Shores, doesn't think it's true.

"It's more negative press than water levels" that's bad for business, he said.

He dismissed talk of global warming surrounding Lake St. Clair, and believes current low water levels are part of a cycle, not an overall trend.

"We're in a low water cycle," he said. "Seven years ago, everyone was sandbagging" to deal with high water levels.

Steve Remias, owner of MacRay Harbor in Harrison Township, agreed.

"I'm really optimistic," he said.

While he said he is aware of decreasing water levels, he also considers the phenomenon cyclical.

After talking to the Army Corps of Engineers numerous times, Remias remains unconvinced about global warming.

"When I talked to these guys, a large bunch of it is estimating," he said. "Basically, they're just guessing."

MacRay Harbor serves about 600 boaters, most of whom Remias said are knowledgeable enough to use charts and maps in navigating low water levels. Remias' staff educates those who aren't experienced with such conditions. He pointed to a water gauge he installed in 2002 to show Lake St. Clair's level. Today it measures about 573 feet above sea level, though the expected summer low peak is still a few months away. Last year's level, still visible via dried residue, was about 574 feet.

Where the harbor is hit most is in the decrease of out-of-state boaters who stay home when they hear of low lake levels. That fear is exaggerated, Remias said.

"During the past four years, we've done a considerable amount of dredging," he said. "Our levels are fine."

Dredging, the act of scooping up mud to clean a channel or increase its depth, is a recourse many marinas resort to in times of drought.

The cost of dredging MacRay Harbor came to about $800,000 over the past four years. Large marinas may be able to handle that amount, but small marinas will be harder hit.

In his role as director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association, Remias urged the state to issue loans to small marinas in order to make dredging more financially attainable.

While recreational marinas can dredge, commercial shipping vessels have to resort to other methods. The United States Great Lakes Shipping Association reported that it had to resort to "light loading," or carrying fewer goods, to enable ships to clear low water. This practice results in higher prices for the consumer.

For more information, visit uscusa.org or www.glerl.noaa.gov.

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