Low Lake Levels Spark Dredging Debate

  • Water levels have hit record lows on Lakes Michigan and Huron. Northport Bay on November 4, 2012. (Photo by Clare Brush)

Lake Michigan and Lake Huron have hit record low water levels…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been recording water levels for almost 100 years. In January, the levels in the Lake Michigan and Huron system dipped to the lowest level ever recorded.

That’s causing problems for commercial shipping and recreational boaters.

Peter Payette has been covering this story and he joins me now.

Peter, how big of a deal are these low lake levels?

Payette: Well, they’re getting to be quite a problem in various places in a number of ways. The issue that’s front and center this week has to do with the harbors and the need for dredging the channels in and out of harbors. For a few years now, smaller harbors especially have not been getting the help they’re accustomed to from the federal government. Traditionally, it’s been the federal government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has dredged these channels to keep them open, and that has not been happening, and so now with the lake levels lower that problem is really being exacerbated.

RW: What options do the coastal communities have?

Payette: Well, they’ve just been scraping together what money they can to get by, and it’s a struggle, it’s expensive. Leland – people may be familiar with the harbor there, with historic Fishtown – last year, they spent more than $100,000 to dredge the channel in and out of the harbor, but that wasn’t enough to pay to dredge the mouth where sand builds up out in the open water. You need bigger equipment there, and it’s a little dicier to do that kind of work. So, there was what they call a speed bump on the way in, where it was shallower. And then that got even shallower this fall. And on a couple of occasions, the Mishe-Mokwa, the boat that is operated by the Manitou Island Transit Company, takes people out to Manitou Island, it got stuck.

RW: With all these harbors that need dredging, there’s been quite a bit of debate about how to pay for this. What have you found out there?

Payette: Well, the thing that interested me the most was that very soon after the Governor said something needed to be done, some lawmakers came forward and proposed legislation to allow the Natural Resources Trust Fund to be tapped for this purpose. The trust fund is a pool of money generated from oil and gas revenues in Michigan, and it’s mainly used for land preservation. And its uses are regulated by the state Constitution and that’s because in the past, voters objected to proposals to use the money for other things, proposals that legislators have come up with.

So, it’s kind of a political hot potato. But if you talk to conservationists, they’ll point out that the trust fund is a unique fund, and that those dollars, when you sell oil and gas rights and take that money, you only get to sell the oil and gas once so it’s a one-time thing, and that the money should be used for something special.

Here’s how Tom Bailey at the Little Traverse Conservancy put it.

“Because this money flowed from non-renewable resources it should be used for capital improvements and lasting recreational land and improvements that would benefit the people of the state of Michigan for the long term.”

Governor Snyder has his own idea. He’s expected this week to ask the State Waterways Commission to allow some funds the commission controls to be used for dredging. Those are funds that are usually given out in the form of grants to harbor communities to improve harbors, to add a marina on, or build a new facility, extend a dock, things like that. The governor is supposed to ask the commission to allow that money to be used for dredging this year.

Peter Payette has been covering the record low water levels in lakes Michigan and Huron for Interlochen Public Radio. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.