One of my favorite songs is The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, sung by Gordon Lightfoot. As I was listening to it yesterday evening on my way home, the lines "With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more / than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty" caught my ear. Lake levels across the Great Lakes have been quite low over the past few years and shipping has suffered as a result. If the Fitz were around today, would it even be able to carry the weight of the cargo it did during that fateful voyage?
With water levels so low, many of the big boats can't carry full loads, and that means more cargo must move via train or truck - both of which contribute to more air pollution. Not that shipping is innocent of environmental consequences - certainly dredging accounts for a fair amount of habitat destruction and probably the "hole" at the bottom of Lake St. Clair. However, there are plenty of reasons to support shipping via water vs. land shipping - in addition to reduced air pollution and traffic tie ups caused by more trucks and trains, the boats are fun to watch (I've spent many an afternoon watching the big barges go by - and a fair amount of time dodging them while sampling fish on the St. Lawrence River) and serve as an important piece of the Lakes economy - bringing business to the port towns and providing jobs both on board and on shore. Ships can travel from the Atlantic to the heart of the North American continent via the St. Lawrence Seaway - and while this opens the door to invasive species and other problems, the benefits of the Seaway for the livelihoods of both the Americans and Canadians living in the region are hard to argue with.