Feds Leave Small Harbors Dredging For Cash

By Amy Lane/Bridge Magazine contributor

It’s taking plenty of $100 checks and some larger amounts, fundraisers and perseverance. But with a big slice of their economic future at stake, members of the small waterfront community of Pentwater are banding together to pay for something Washington, D.C., no longer does: Dredging of the sandbar that annually accumulates and chokes off the mouth of a channel between Pentwater Lake and Lake Michigan.

Meanwhile, a federal fund that collects taxes paid by shippers to cover operation and maintenance of navigation channels continues to grow. The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has been spending each year only about half of the roughly $1.5 billion it annually takes in, and, by some estimates, is expected this fiscal year to grow from nearly $6.3 billion to $7 billion. (Pentwater needed about $45,000 to ensure channel access to a minimum depth of 10 feet.)

Pentwater’s channel provides access for sailboats, charter fishing and power boats that enter the harbor each boating season, bringing visitors that eat in restaurants, shop and patronize marinas at the west Michigan village whose population of 1,000 winter residents swells to at least 5,000 in the summer.

“It’s one of the roads into Pentwater. It just happens to be by water,” said Pentwater Village President Juanita Pierman. “We’ve referred to the channel, and Lake Michigan, as our industrial park. We have no other industry, other than one manufacturing company. The lake is our industrial park.”

Pentwater and other harbor communities around Michigan and the Great Lakes  are dealing with a federal cash crunch. No federal funds are being allocated to dredge recreational harbors traditionally dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and nearly all smaller commercial harbors handling less than 1 million tons annually are similarly unfunded for dredging needs.

It is the second fiscal year that there have been no federal appropriations to the Army Corps to dredge recreational harbors, and even when there was money in 2010, it came through “earmarks” or congressional add-ons that Washington politicians now have disavowed.

It might seem there’s enough money in the harbor fund to cover more dredging for smaller harbors, but many familiar with the issue say the harbor fund’s reserve is a paper balance, absorbed into the federal budgetary process and used to offset other spending priorities.

“Harbors have been on I.V. drip … and the drip basically has been earmarks,” said Chuck May of the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition, a group formed in 2008 to advocate for recreational and commercial Great Lakes harbors. “Therefore, we’ve advocated from day one on a process that’s equitable, needs-based and sustainable. From now on, you spend $1.5 billion on its intended purpose, the harbors.”

Congress wrangles as channels silt

Bills introduced by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and U.S. Rep.  Charles Boustany, R-La., would require the total amount available for annual spending by the trust fund to be equal to trust fund tax receipts, plus interest. Similar language has been incorporated in federal transportation budget reauthorization bills that are pending in a House-Senate conference committee and will be negotiated.

But that budget legislation isn’t likely to be acted on immediately. And with no federal resources appearing anytime soon for dredging, communities are worried, said Patty Birkholz, director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes.

“Tourism is a huge part of our economic engine in this state … (and) part of tourism dollars are generated by recreational boaters. If they can’t get into the harbor, or if there hasn’t been dredging or they’re concerned that they might get stuck, then they’re not coming in.”

Leland harbor, near the tip of the Leelenau Peninsula, is among the Michigan harbors not receiving federal dredging assistance. The dredging gap has a key state lakes official worried about the impact on Michigan's tourism industry. (Bridge archive photo)

The Army Corps has a list of 15 recreational harbors in the Great Lakes, including six in Michigan, that could pose concern to recreational boaters. The list is based on the Corps’ review of recent surveys of conditions and known sediment deposit rates and while conditions can change rapidly, harbors on the list are generally in the four-foot-or-less range.

An additional 30 recreational harbors on the Great Lakes will need dredging by 2013, according to the Corps.

Marie Strum, assistant chief of engineering and technical services in the Corps’ Detroit district office, said it’s important for boaters to check the latest condition surveys on the Corps’ website and to call local harbor masters to check conditions.

The dredging needs of Michigan’s recreational harbors are estimated at about $5 million annually. May, of the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition, said that around the Great Lakes, $10 million annually is needed to dredge low-use commercial harbors and $10 million to dredge recreational harbors.

The Corps does not disagree with the figures, but says it can only spend what’s authorized by Congress. And Washington funding priorities have been directed at supporting commercial navigation.

“We have a federal responsibility to maintain these harbors and channels, and we have to make very difficult decisions on applying the funds to the most critical needs,” Strum said. “We are in a constrained funding environment, in the lakes as well as nationwide, and that money can only be spread so far. And that leaves us with many unmet needs out there.”

Concern over the issue includes recreational business interests like the Livonia-based Michigan Boating Industries Association, which supports the harbor coalition’s efforts. “Michigan’s harbors act as the gateway to the Great Lakes to more than 4 million boaters,” said Nicki Polan, communications director, in an email to the Bridge.

“Additionally, harbors provide economic stimulus to communities, and perform other valuable functions such as ports of refuge during inclement weather, ports for U.S. Coast Guard rescue stations, ports for law enforcement, ports for commercial fleets, ports for Great Lakes research vessels, and ferry terminals.”

Polan said if harbors are not maintained, that limits access to the water and “impacts boat sales, marina occupancy, party store and fuel sales.”

Grasping for local solution

Pentwater felt the economic ripples of the dredging problem last fall, when some sailboat owners did not store their boats for the winter at a local marina as usual, instead sailing them other harbors over worries they would not be able to get out of Pentwater this spring, Pierman said.

Now, through the combined efforts of the village putting in $16,000 and a community group that’s so far raised $29,000 in private funds, Pentwater has $45,000 to pay a contractor to dredge to a minimum 10-foot depth.

“And we are hopeful that more contributions will come in, and I think they will, so that we can get to the $60,000 that will dredge to the 12-foot level,” Pierman said.

But it won’t happen every year, she warned.

“This is a one-time shot,” Pierman said. “The village just does not have the resources to do this on an annual basis. And we cannot go back every year and ask the community to do this. The resources just are not there.”

Sentiment is similar up the coast in Leland, whose harbor had not had the annual dredging it needs since 2009.

With the situation growing critical, the community started raising funds in January. So far, it has pulled together or has near-commitments for about $88,000, including $25,000 from harbor operations and additional contributions from the business, tribal fishing and charter fishing community, among others, said harbor master Russell Dzuba.

Dredging began in mid-May and is expected to be done in early June.

“The reality is, there’s a little bit of angst involved in this,” Dzuba said. “The town grew up around the harbor, looks at the harbor as an economic engine. While the legislature fiddles in Rome, these little towns are falling out the wayside.

“I guarantee that if I go to those same people next year, I’m not going to get the same kind of money I got this year. At some point, something’s got to give.”

In the office of U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, whose district spans more than 200 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, communications director Brian Patrick said the dredging dilemma is “an incredible concern.”

Huizenga believes there is adequate money in the trust fund to cover the needs of recreational and commercial harbors, Patrick added, and that Huizenga supports the House transportation reauthorization bill language, which is the stronger version, to ensure “every dollar in” the trust fund flows back out, Patrick said.

Big boat heads for Saugatuck

Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she hopes the legislation comes out with language specifying that recreational harbor dredging needs would be included in the funding distribution.

The community has both a harbor that is silting in and that is the community’s responsibility to dredge, and a federally authorized channel that has been under Army Corps’ jurisdiction, but, as a recreational channel, is no longer being dredged by the Corps, she said.

In fall 2011, Saugatuck and Douglas formed a new harbor authority to use tax increment financing to provide money to support ongoing maintenance and dredging – an effort that is focused on the harbor and not the channel, Fairchild said. A full harbor dredging, she added, would require about $40 million. She said the initiative is still in its formative stages, but the goal is to “find a way to sustain our harbor on an ongoing basis.” And, she said, “I am still hopeful that we can at least keep our federal channels open.”

Without the harbor dredging, a 138-passenger cruise ship, the Yorktown, is scheduled to make at least a dozen visits to the Saugatuck harbor this summer by stopping and turning at one of the harbor’s deeper points