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Hey, Where’d the Water Go?

January 4, 2008

NOAA graphic depicts a freakishly-low low tide on Jan. 3

The Chesapeake Bay suddenly lost about 187 billion cubic feet of water yesterday, Jan 3–enough to ground a cargo ship at the Port of Baltimore.

“A non-U.S. vessel may have been touching bottom while at the pier, not while underway,” says Lt. Nicole Rodriguez, chief of investigations division for U.S. Coast Guard sector Baltimore. “We are investigating.”

Rodriguez says the Coast Guard received the report regarding the M/V Betis, a 76,000-ton freighter, after it left the port. She encourages people who see accidents or problems on the water to report them to the Coast Guard immediately at (410) 576-2525.

Ships almost scrape the bottom as it is, says J.B. Hanson, a spokesman for the Port of Baltimore: “Most of our berths are about 43-45 feet deep. And if you’ve got a fully loaded ship, that’s basically its limit.” He did not have information about the Betis because it had been docked at a private terminal.

The normal low tide in these parts is only about a foot less than dead high. But on the morning of Jan. 3, the water level was about 3 feet below normal, according to data collected by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hanson says he noticed the extreme low tide and jokingly wondered if the water was just contracting in the cold. “Maybe it’s Armageddon,” he quips.

Actually, the strong Northwest wind blew the water out of the bay, according to NOAA spokeswoman Kim Kuranz, who says it made for a “definite bonus beach day” for her dog, who likes rooting around like a truffle pig at low tide.

A source who saw the Betis at berth contends the ship damaged the CNX Coal Pier, run by Console Energy of Pittsburgh. “We’re assessing what damage, if any, to the pier,” says Joe Cerenzia, director of public relations for Console Energy, which runs 20 mines and ships more than 5 million tons of coal each year from the pier. He says the grounding caused “a delay of several hours” in getting the ship out of port, but no injuries.

Cerenzia says the low water was unusual. “The last time anything like this happened it was Exodus,” he quips.

As of now the water is coming in a bit higher than normal, as all that water sloshes back into the bay.

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