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Great Lakes Dip to 32-Year Low

July 19, 1999

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) _ Last year, spring torrents pushed Lake Ontario above flood level and storm waves turned a few shoreline homes near Rochester into mini islands.

This year, the situation is the opposite: The beaches of Lake Ontario and the other Great Lakes are lengthening, and the numbers show the grim state of water levels in the five lakes, which have ebbed to their lowest since 1967.

Lake Ontario recently stood at 7 inches below average. Seven inches may not seem like much water, but that’s on a lake that stretches roughly 200 miles long and 50 miles across.

Lake Erie was down 3 inches, Superior was 6 inches off and Michigan and Huron came up 8 inches short.

The lakes will probably recede an additional 1 1/2 feet through November before inching back up again, experts said. Little rain and snow over the past year are blamed.

From January 1998 through this spring, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that precipitation was 20 percent below normal in the Great Lakes basin.

Dozens of small boats have run aground on the lakes. Many more have gouged hulls or damaged propellers from hitting obstacles that previously were too deep to worry about. Freighters and other large ships don’t go near the shallow water where sandbars are appearing.

Even a pleasure trip can be ruined. After a brisk voyage along Lake Ontario’s southern shore, Dave Walsh steered his 28-foot sailboat toward home, carefully hugging the west-shore pier as he entered Irondequoit Bay.

Thirty yards off the pier, the sailboat ran gently aground on a sandbar, stranding Walsh and his sons, Russell, 15, and Jeffrey, 14. It was a first for Walsh in 30 years of sailing on Lake Ontario.

``The last 30 years, with the lake levels significantly above average, there was a greater cushion; people weren’t that close to that bottom,″ said Roger Gauthier, a hydrologist with the Corps of Engineers in Detroit.

Lake Ontario has one advantage over the other lakes: a plug of sorts. A dam sits on the 40-year-old St. Lawrence Seaway leading down to the Atlantic Ocean, and the flow through its gates has been reduced slightly.

``We’re just hoping for the best,″ said Tony Eberhardt, chief of the Lower Great Lakes Water Control Center.

Business is leaking away from small marinas unable to rent out their shallow dock spaces. All 18 slips at Long Pond Marina in Greece, a Rochester suburb, lie empty and owner Mark Sheffield reckons he’ll lose $10,000 in fees.

He’s staying afloat with the increased demand for boat repairs.

The sand bar that left Walsh and his sons high and dry was 4 feet below the surface, but his sailboat _ ``Blown Away″ _ has a draft of 5 feet.

Nothing they tried would get the boat off the sand, not even firing up the engine.

But then a fellow cruised by on a jet ski. He dismounted and waded across the sand bar to tie a line to their boat.

``Blown Away″ was towed off the sand without damage, but Walsh knows he’ll have to be more careful on a planned trip to the Thousand Islands, a St. Lawrence Seaway resort region.

``When you hit the bottom there, you’re mostly hitting granite,″ he said.