The Environment Report
3:04 pm
Tue February 5, 2013

Record low lake levels spark dredging debate

You can listen to today's Environment Report here, or read the story below.

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 levels ever recorded.

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

Peter Payette has been covering this story for Interlochen Public Radio and I spoke with him for today's Environment Report.

Payette said the issue that is front and center is the need for more dredging in the smaller harbors and marinas. He says they have not been getting help from the federal government - help that used to be there.

"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," said Payette.

Payette says coastal communities have been scraping together what money they can to do their own dredging. The harbor in Leland, Michigan (home of the historic 'Fishtown') 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," said Payette.

On a couple of occasions, the Mishe-Mokwa, the boat operated by the Manitou Island Transit Company, got stuck.

With all the harbors that need dredging, Payette explains, there’s been quite a bit of debate about how to pay for this.

The governor recently declared that 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.

Payette says the trust fund is a pool of money generated from oil and gas revenues in Michigan, and it’s mainly used for land preservation. He says voters objected to how the trust fund was used in the past, so its uses are now regulated by the state Constitution.

"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," said Payette.

Tom Bailey of the Little Traverse Conservancy said because the money comes from non-renewable reources "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.