Record low water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron have prompted the Michigan Senate to approve an “emergency spending” bill, allocating almost $21 million for dredging more than 50 public harbors.
The bill now goes to the House, and Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, a key supporter of the legislation, said he has already spoken to House leaders, “trying to expedite this because of the timing factor.” He said there are indications the House may vote on it this coming week.
“Timing is of the essence here,” said Hansen, “so we can get dredging started as soon as first ice-out.”
Last month the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit reported a preliminary new record-low water level for Lake Michigan-Huron for the second month in a row. The depth in January was the lowest monthly since records began being compiled in 1918. The Corps’ latest forecasts indicated a strong likelihood for continued record lows over the next several months.
The Corps of Engineers has done a great deal of dredging over the years to keep Michigan’s public harbors accessible. A state report released in 2009 states that Michigan harbors and marinas on the Great Lakes generate $2 billion annually from the recreational boating industry. The Great Lakes commercial and sport fishery economic impact on Michigan was valued collectively at $4 billion annually.
When asked if the Corps lacked the funds for additional dredging this year, Hansen said no.
“They just won’t spend it,” he said, adding the federal government took in $1.5 billion in taxes and fees from the maritime industry last year, but has allocated only $869 million to help the industry.
“They’re just not spending it on what it is intended to be spent on,” said Hansen.
Hansen said there is also a bill introduced in the Senate that would allocate $1 million to increase the availability of bank loans to private harbors and marinas that need dredging. He said the proposal is for loans similar to the crop disaster loans for farmers, in which the state would pay some of the loan origination fees.
Michigan has scores of private harbors and marinas, ranging from larger ones such as Great Lakes Marina and Torresen Marine on Muskegon Lake, down to much smaller businesses such as Charlie’s Marina on Pentwater Lake.
Hansen said the private marina assistance legislation “also is a timing issue,” with the goal being to get it passed as soon as possible, because it could help reduce the cost of dredging if a dredge company is already nearby working on a public waterway.
“A lot of the cost is moving the dredge around,” said Hansen.
Hansen said members of the Legislature also are considering ways to find funding for future dredging. One way might be to set up tax increment financing authorities in harbor communities.
“What we’re doing now is an emergency situation,” due to the unusual low water, “but we have to have something for the years to come,” he said.