Lawmakers using creative means to maintain harbors

With Great Lakes water levels continuing to falter over the past few years, access to harbors and other waterways for homeowners, recreation and commerce has become an increasingly important issue.

Lake Superior water levels are down and lakes Michigan and Huron were recently found to be at their historically lowest levels.

State and federal officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder, are working on ways to make short-term and long-term funding for dredging projects available.

Snyder -who plans to expedite permits for dredging projects- has proposed a 2013 budget supplement of $21 million for an emergency dredging plan for Michigan Great Lakes harbors, which includes $6.7 million for a dozen dredging projects in the Upper Peninsula ranging from harbors at Big Bay, Munising and Grand Marais to Escanaba, Manistique and Menominee.

Snyder recommended $9.4 million in his budget for ongoing dredging work in 2014.

In the state Legislature, lawmakers are creatively looking for funding sources. A new bipartisan bicameral Legislative Waterways Caucus was formed to address several important issues ranging from invasive species and dredging to low lake levels, tourism and recreation.

State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, has proposed a change to the state Constitution, which would allow money from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to be used for dredging and natural resources related projects including trails and parks improvements. That measure would require voter approval and will likely be controversial.

State Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck, recently introduced a bill in the House that would change granting legislation to allow trust fund money to be used for dredging of Great Lakes harbors. Other state Republican lawmakers have proposed obtaining $30 million from the state’s “Rainy Day Fund” (Budget Stabilization Fund) for emergency dredging this year.

On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, recently said he planned to reintroduce legislation to improve maintenance of the nation’s harbors, including those in the Great Lakes. Levin introduced the Harbor Maintenance Act in the last Congress. The bill would ensure that money from the more than $7 billion surplus in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is spent as intended on maintaining the nation’s harbors.

We applaud lawmakers for trying to find ways to find solutions the problem.

Dredging of harbors is very important to Michigan’s economy. Michigan has nearly 1 million registered boats, leading to $4 billion in economic activity and 34,000 jobs. In the Great Lakes region, those numbers swell to $34 billion and 244,000 jobs.

With the effects of global warming, dredging of Great Lakes harbors will likely continue to be a problematic issue into the future. We think it’s a good idea lawmakers are getting on the stick now -although likely not soon enough for some long-suffering shoreline property or business owners- to improve the situation going forward.

We need Great Lakes tourism, recreation, access and commerce -and to have those, we need the dredging, and the money to finance those important projects this year and in the years to come. We need a regular dredging cycle and reliable funding to make it possible.

We’re pleased state officials have recognized the concerns and have focused on this issue as a priority, a problem the aim to get solved.