Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 22, 2012

Another View: Who will pay to keep harbors open?

By The Holland Sentinel

---- — Most of us think of the shape of the lakes, rivers and beaches around us as permanent fixtures, but of course they're not. Even within the span of a human lifetime, rising and falling water levels, erosion and siltation can change the geography ... Fighting that change is possible but expensive, and coastal towns up and down Lake Michigan are now contemplating how much they're willing to spend to preserve the topography they've come to accept as normal.

Near-record low water levels in Lake Michigan are affecting not only the Big Lake but the rivers and inland lakes that feed it, imperiling both recreational and commercial navigation as ships and boats scrape bottom and marinas are left high and dry. ...

The recreational opportunities afforded by our inland lakes and rivers are a key part of the lifestyle, tourist trade and local economy of dozens of Lake Michigan coastal towns, but keeping channels open is an expensive and increasingly problematic task. ... Local congressmen have won special appropriations for local harbors in the past, but that may become more difficult to pull off in an era of tightening federal budgets. And while members of Congress want to tap the billions of dollars sitting unspent in a federal harbor maintenance trust fund, even all that money may not be enough to trickle down to places such as Saugatuck and Douglas. And if the Holland Board of Public Works no longer needs to receive coal shipments by water, Lake Macatawa will slip further down the federal priority list.

So the question is: How much are we as local communities willing to pay to support recreational and commercial shipping? The Kalamazoo Lake harbor authority reported last week that it urgently needs to raise $60,000 for emergency planning to dig four channels through the harbor; a longer-term dredging plan would cost $2 million and require a special tax levy.

Some argue that marina owners ... should pay for such efforts, much the way downtown Holland businesses have paid to finance many ... improvements ... Others argue that the cost ... should be a community responsibility, like parks and schools. In many ways, easy access to the water is one of our greatest community assets ...

The third option, of course, is to do nothing and let nature take its course until weather cycles raise water levels once again. But it's hard to imagine life in Holland and Saugatuck if you couldn't watch the boats go by ... (or) if all you faced was a view of mud flats.

Low water levels appear to be our new reality.

The Holland Sentinel