Water levels pose concern

Besides impacting recreational boating and commercial shipping, Tuscola County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol Boat became beached last fall from low water levels on Saginaw Bay.

By Mary Drier
Staff Writer

MICHIGAN — Decreasing Great Lakes’ water levels have been a concern for several years and are now a critical issue.

“Water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are at all-time lows. Plus, levels in lakes Michigan, Huron and St. Clair are expected to continue dropping. Because of that, the Michigan State Waterways Commission adopted an emergency dredging plan that will provide zero-match grant funding opportunities for harbors of refuge, recreational boating harbors, marinas and boat launches most affected by the low water levels.

In total, about $21 million will be dedicated toward keeping Michigan’s waterways operational throughout the state. About $11.5 million for the projects would come from the state’s general fund. The rest would come from money within the waterways maintenance and support system – money that might otherwise go to maintaining breakwalls or docks.

Of that amount, $630,000 will go to the Caseville Municipal Harbor, $700,000 to the Harbor Beach Municipal Marina, $700,000 to the Port Austin State Harbor, and $280,000 to the Port Sanilac Municipal Harbor Refuge.

Although Tuscola County doesn’t have as much shoreline as some parts of the state, low water levels created problems last fall for recreational boating and for those trying to get those boats out of the water at marinas at the end of the season. Also, use of the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol Boat became was a victim of beaching from low-water levels on Saginaw Bay.

According to an Army Corps of Engineers’ estimate, at least 30 small Great Lakes harbors will need attention in the next couple of years.

Lake Huron, like most of the other Great Lakes, are at historic low levels. Lake Michigan’s level is at least 2 feet below its long-term average and on its way to  declining to its lowest point since record-keeping began in 1918 if there isn’t significant snow fall this winter and rain in the spring.

Because of those issues, county commissioners across the state, including the Tuscola Board of Commissioners, sent letters and resolutions regarding the impact of low lake levels.

“Dredging involves the removal of accumulated bottom sediments in waterways to maintain adequate depth for navigation, explained DNR Parks and Recreation Division Chief Ron Olson.

“Such dredging is needed in the most critically affected areas in order to allow safe access to harbors.  Without this action, some harbors are in real danger of closing.”

DNR Director Keith Creagh, noted that quickly and creatively solving the challenge of low water levels is important on many fronts.

“The safety of Great Lakes boaters, as well as the economies of local communities, urgently demands dredging work in the hardest-hit areas,” said Creagh. “Because federal money for dredging of harbors is uncertain, we have found our own solution. The emergency dredging plan helps address the problem for this year. We must still seek a long-term solution to this continuing challenge.”

In order to streamline the grant-funding process, the state will: waive the regular local-match requirement for 2013 emergency dredging projects. Immediately contact communities that have been identified to receive zero-match Waterways grant emergency-dredging monies. Not accept 2013 grant applications because of the decision to redirect funding, and facilitate coordination and involvement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Creagh added that in addition to boater safety and the health of local economies, the swift actions laid out in the emergency dredging plan will preserve broad access to the Great Lakes and improve recreational boating opportunities statewide. The DNR will redirect staff toward dredging at state facilities with no extra funding.

With more than 800,000 registered boats in 2011, ranking third highest in the nation, the health and sustainability of Michigan’s waterways are vital to the state’s economy.

Mary Drier is a staff writer for the Tuscola County Advertiser. She can be reached at drier@tcadvertiser.com.

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