Facts of the Matter
Great Lakes Waterway boosted cargo
From the earliest exploration of North America, the Great Lakes begged for a passage to the Atlantic Ocean.
The first eastern passage was the Erie canal. Proposed in 1699, work was not begun until 1808. Dug with pick and shovel and finished in 1825, it links the Hudson River to Lake Erie through a series of 83 locks over a length of 363 miles.
The canal cut transport costs by 95 percent, opened regions further west to settlement, resulted in a massive population surge in western New York, and established New York City as the commerce capital of the New World.
Today, it is possible to sail a ship from Duluth, Minn., at the westernmost shores of Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean along the Great Lakes Waterway, a distance of 2,400 miles horizontally and over a 600-foot vertical drop.
The waterway is a system of channels and canals that makes all of the Great Lakes accessible to about 25 percent of all oceangoing vessels. The 40-foot depth of the channels restricts ships with deeper draft.
The Welland Canal, which bypasses the Niagara River and the falls, joins the Great Lakes Waterway with the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic Ocean.
The St. Lawrence Seaway was, at the time of its construction in 1954, considered the largest engineering work of all time. By the time of its completion in 1959, the final cost was over $1 billion, the equivalent of over $7 billion today.
The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the first leg of the Great Lakes Waterway, made the Great Lakes part of an international system. Today, the Illinois Waterway connects the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River, and the New York State Canal System joins the Great Lakes with the Hudson River.
In 2007, 550 million tons of iron ore, coal, stone, grain, salt, cement, potash, petroleum and other goods was moved on the Great Lakes. The total amount of shipping has been decreasing for several years because the locks are too narrow or the water too shallow in the St. Lawrence Seaway to accommodate most container ships.
Storms and reefs are always a threat and yearly fluctuations in water level compound problems. Many thousands of ships have sunk or just disappeared in the Great Lakes.
The initial increase in shipping coincided with an increase in population and corresponding environmental change since the opening of the Great Lakes Waterway.
Pollutants of various types enter the water from the ships and from rainwater and groundwater carrying chemicals from surrounding farms and industry. Invasive species discharged from the ballast and bilge of ships are causing native species and biodiversity to decline.
It is a classic example of the balance between economics and ecology that has continued since man first used brains rather than brawn to compete in the ecosystem
It is not a conflict that is likely to get better as population grows in a world of dwindling resources.
Richard Brill, professor of science at Honolulu Community College, teaches earth and physical science and investigates life and the universe. E-mail questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org