No relief in sight for small harbors in the Great Lakes

May 9, 2016

The harbormaster in Leland says the federal government needs to spend emergency funds to dredge the channel there. The channel is about six feet deep, the minimum needed for large yachts and the Mishe-Mokwa, the largest ferryboat that takes visitors to the Manitou Islands.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ district office in Detroit has recommended that emergency funds be used to dredge the channel between Lake Michigan and Leland, but that decision will be made at the national level.

Recreational harbors in the Great Lakes have had maintenance trouble for at least a decade. In 2007, a yacht trying to get into Portage Lake in Manistee County ran aground and eventually sank.

Since then, Congress has increased the amount of money the Army Corps has to maintain federally designated harbors around the country, but the increase hasn’t made much of a difference for the recreational harbors.

The federal government taxes cargo shipped in the U.S., and those dollars are supposed to be used for harbor maintenance. Not all of that tax money makes it back to the harbors, however. The chair of the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition, Chuck May, says about $600 million of harbor maintenance fees still disappear each year into the general budget.

The coalition hopes eventually all the tax money will come to the harbors in the future. But Chuck May is also worried about a new development.

The Corps has traditionally been responsible for the channel in and out of a harbor. Recently, some money has been appropriated to dredge areas inside harbors in large ports, areas that have been maintained by the local government. May says if that trend continues, it will increase demand on the harbor maintenance fund.

“That’s obviously something we feel is inappropriate and wrong, particularly until all federal assets are maintained,” he says.