ELBERTA, Mich. -- Kris and Marge Mills bought a marina and fishing shop last year for half a million dollars. They've spent tens of thousands more fixing it up. Now they desperately need something money can't buy: water.
Betsie Bay Marina is perched on a riverbank just upstream from Lake Michigan, which - like the other Great Lakes - is experiencing one of the sharpest declines in water levels ever recorded, with no end in sight.
"If it continues to drop at this rate we'll pretty much have to close up," Marge Mills says, surveying the sandy soil beneath her docks.
The Great Lakes, their connecting channels and the St. Lawrence River form the world's largest surface fresh water system, sprawling across 2,200 miles from eastern Minnesota to the Atlantic Ocean. Lake levels historically have fluctuated, which scientists say is essential to the health of the ecosystem.
Yet the present decline, resulting from three years of unusually warm, dry weather, is causing alarm because of its suddenness and severity. It affects a wide spectrum of interests in eight states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
How much the drop-off has cost the regional economy hasn't been determined. But marina owners are especially hard-hit. Also vulnerable are fuel vendors, restaurants and other tourism-dependent businesses in dozens of lakefront cities.
"The water level is going to affect every single business in this town, and everybody's got the same problems up and down the coast," says Alice Fewins, chamber of commerce director in the Lake Michigan village of Frankfort, Mich.
The shipping industry stands to lose millions, as the vessels that haul iron ore, limestone and coal between Duluth, Minn., and Buffalo, N.Y., must make more trips with less cargo to avoid running aground in shallow harbors.
The New York Power Authority, which supplies 25 percent of that state's electricity, has reduced output at its hydro plants on the Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers, spokesman Joe Leary says.
Many shoreline residents cannot launch fishing and pleasure craft from their private docks. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has declared nine state boat ramps unsafe for larger boats.
The ferry that transports passengers and supplies from Cheboygan, Mich., to Bois Blanc Island in Lake Huron was grounded for weeks and still hasn't resumed a normal schedule.
Communities and power companies that draw water from the lakes are hoping levels don't recede beyond their intake pipes, some extending only a few hundred feet from shore.
Van Snider, president of the 1,200-member Michigan Boating Industries Association, cautions against overreacting.
"We've gone through this before," Snider says. "No question it's an inconvenience, but there is plenty of water for recreational boating activities."
Still, getting boats - especially large ones - into the water can be challenging.
Donna Swank of Anderson, Ind., placed calls along the entire Lake Michigan coast looking for somewhere to launch her family's new 31-foot cruiser. They wound up in the Lake Huron city of Alpena, which recently lengthened its municipal ramp by 12 feet.
"I didn't have any idea it would be this bad," Swank says. "It's scary."
What makes the drop-off particularly remarkable is that it comes only three years after lake levels reached near-record highs. Then, some houses were swept away.
But a prolonged dry spell, part of a weather pattern that has plunged much of the Midwest into drought, has made those days a distant memory. Runoff from melting snow, which accounts for 40 percent of the lakes' seasonal replenishment, is way down. And warmer-than-usual temperatures have accelerated evaporation.
Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie have receded more than 3 feet since April 1997. Lakes Superior and Ontario are down 1´ feet, even though their outflows are regulated by locks and gates.
Water levels may hit record lows by the end of summer, says Roger Gauthier, supervising hydrologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit office.
The numbers might seem insignificant; the lakes cover 94,000 square miles and contain 6 quadrillion gallons of water. Superior, the largest, reaches depths of 1,330 feet.
But Erie's average depth is only 70 feet. And the system has many shallow areas where a few inches make a big difference. In some navigation channels, 1,000-foot cargo ships "literally scrape the bottom," says Michael Donahue, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, a policy coalition of states and Canadian provinces bordering the lakes.
For many, salvation lies in dredging - deepening harbors and channels that lead to open water. Requests for dredging permits have soared in the last year, the Corps of Engineers says.
The Toledo Beach Marina, near the Michigan-Ohio line, has paid more than $1 million to deepen its harbor by 3´ feet. Operations manager Marshall Gill says there was little choice.
"Every indication is it's going to stay like this for a while or get even worse," Gill says.
Dredging is an unaffordable luxury for some small operators. The Millses figure it would cost $100,000 to dig out their marina. And environmentalists fear that so much dredging will damage fish spawning areas and stir up long-buried toxins from the days when industry used the lakes as a dumping ground.
Not everyone is distressed by low water.
Residents of lakefront cottages who complained a few years ago about erosion from high water now gaze at sunsets from wide, sandy beaches. Beachcombers are exploring newly created islands, shipwrecks and the remains of long-forgotten piers.
From an ecological standpoint, the water decline - although unusually steep - is part of a natural cycle that is mostly beneficial, says Douglas Wilcox, a wetlands specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Ann Arbor.
Wetlands are the most biologically diverse places in the world, in part because fluctuating water levels prevent any plant species from dominating, Wilcox said. Plants provide habitat and nourishment for invertebrates that form a crucial link in the aquatic food chain.
"Wetland habitat is dependent on the lake levels going down and up, down and up over time," he said.
Levels have fluctuated on roughly 30-year cycles since record keeping began in the 1840s, says Todd Thompson of the Indiana Geological Survey. They were down during the dust bowl days of the 1930s and again in the mid-1960s. Today's decline was due.
But that is little comfort to business people such as the Millses. They hope their tackle shop, warehouse and hydraulic boat hoist bring in enough revenue to keep them going until the water rises again. About 20 of their 59 boat slips are unusable, with the water level only half as deep as the usual 5 or 6 feet.
"It's too late for us to back out; we're invested in this place," says Kris Mills, who quit his job with the county road commission to devote full time to the marina.
The problems for marinas like theirs have a ripple effect in waterfront villages, like Elberta and neighboring Frankfort, that also depend on tourists.
There will be little draw for visitors to stop for a meal, shop downtown or get a room for the night, says Scott Powell, owner of the Hotel Frankfort, "if those people can't get out on the lake."