Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 5, 2013

Editorial: Claim share of harbor-dredging cash

— A proposal by Gov. Rick Snyder to spend up to $11 million to dredge a handful of Michigan harbors to keep them in business amid falling Great Lakes water levels is the right idea, but it’s coming from the wrong place. This is a job for the federal government, which has the money but not the political will to see it done.

Snyder’s office said the budget he will present next week will include $11 million to dredge Michigan harbors in danger of losing connections to open water.

That’s part of a wider effort to include expediting Department of Environmental Quality permits for dredging projects, pushing for more federal funding and devising a long-term strategy to pay for keeping harbors deep enough for boats to pass through.

But what’s really needed is something Michigan has been short of for a long time now: political clout in Washington. The federal government literally has billions of dollars set aside for just this sort of work, but little of it is going to Michigan.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining 56 harbors and channels in Michigan, but plans to dredge just six of them this year — Detroit, Saginaw, Manistee, Muskegon, Grand Haven and Holland. Priority goes to large and medium-sized ports used by commercial vessels, which is why Manistee thankfully is on the list.

But that effort falls far short of what the Corps should be doing  — and has the money for.

A federal tax on freight shipped at U.S. ports raises about $1.5 billion a year for dredging and harbor maintenance. But about half of the money — as is so typical — is diverted for other uses.

Members of Congress from coastal states are pushing to put the money back where it belongs; recently introduced House and Senate bills would require that all the money in the fund be spent on dredging and other harbor and port upkeep.

Incredibly, while private individuals and local communities are raising their own money for dredging, as Leland did last year, there is a $7 billion surplus in the federal fund.

This is just more of the same short-end-of-the-stick treatment Rust Belt states, including all the Great Lakes states, have suffered in recent decades. It has to stop.

Dredging is essential for towns up and down Lake Michigan like Leland and Onekama, but at least one idea to help goes too far.

A bill introduced in the Michigan House last week calls for money from the state Natural Resources Trust Fund to be diverted to dredging.

That’s a bad idea that robs one key environmental fund to pay for another.

There is money elsewhere; Michigan politicians simply have to find a way to tap into it.