BY ANNE STANTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College is a step closer to its long-held plan to build a deeper, bigger harbor for its educational and research vessels.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to sign a partnership agreement this month to dredge NMC's Maritime Academy harbor, which is home to the highly visible training vessel — the State of Michigan.
"If we waited another year without doing anything, I think the State of Michigan would be challenged to get in or out because of the amount of sand in the harbor," said Hans VanSumeren, director of NMC's Great Lakes Water Studies Institute. "There are also certain wave and wind conditions that put it in danger of being blown up on shore."
The agreement will also give the college the green light to demolish and replace the eastern break wall this summer, said Ed Bailey, NMC's technical division director.
Once completed, more vessels will be able to enter the harbor, meaning greater student exposure to new research projects and equipment.
"The harbor will essentially become a working laboratory where we can work year-round — under the ice in the winter, on the water in the summer," VanSumeren said. "The harbor in its current state is almost inaccessible because of the amount of sand."
The agreement required Traverse City to approve a change to NMC's leasing agreement for the harbor's bottomlands. City commissioners approved the lease change Monday night after some discussion. Commissioners had a number of concerns, including a plan to move 16,000 cubic yards of the dredged sand some 1.5 miles west of the harbor to waters fronting the beach near where M-22 and M-72 intersect at about a five-foot depth. The city approved the measure after Bailey assured them NMC is working with the Watershed Center of Grand Traverse Bay to ensure the sand won't hurt the fish habitat or aquatic environment.
Bailey said the dredging plan is a decade in the making.
The Corps will pick up $2 million of the $2.6 million project cost. NMC will pay the balance. Bailey said the project at NMC's Great Lakes Campus on East Front Street will save money in the long run.
"The last time we dredged the harbor, it cost us $65,000, and we have to dredge every two years," Bailey said. "Because of the nature of the movement of the bay, there's an island in the middle of it. This morning there were ducks standing on it."
NMC is home to the nation's only maritime academy that trains Great Lakes maritime professionals. Students in both the merchant marine and Great Lakes fresh water studies programs train on educational and research vessels that moor in the harbor. The 210-foot State of Michigan, with a draft of about 15 feet, periodically sets sail throughout the academic year.
The project will dredge the harbor to a depth of 16 feet and demolish the dilapidated, hook-shaped eastern break wall that allows sand to build up in the harbor and restricts the number of vessels that can moor within, Bailey said.
The new, straight break wall will measure 280 feet long by 15 feet wide. Dredging will remove about 16,000 cubic yards of sand.
Early plans to accommodate cruise ships at the harbor were shelved, Bailey said, because it would have been too costly and the water surrounding the harbor isn't deep enough.
He said Sen. Carl Levin's office was instrumental in making the project happen.