Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 2, 2012

Editorial: Levels put focus on dredging

— Issue after issue, the Great Lakes region's lack of political clout continues to cripple efforts to deal with pending and current threats to the well-being of the planet's largest repository of fresh water.

From invasive species imported by ocean-going freighters to fertilizer runoff to mercury from coal-fired power plants, the old Rust Belt states usually get the short — and often polluted — end of the stick.

Now, any hope of getting access to enough federal money to dredge key harbors and marinas slowly being strangled by receding Great Lakes water levels is being frustrated, once again, by having the feeblest voice out there.

Even as lakeside communities like Leland and Onekama look to the federal government for critical funding to keep their harbors and marinas open to Lake Michigan, much of that money is going elsewhere.

According to the Associated Press, a fund for dredging and other harbor maintenance generated by a tax on freight shipped at U.S. ports already exists, and raises about $1.5 billion a year. That may not resolve every dredging issue, but it could give hope to communities like Leland, which raised nearly $90,000 this year to keep the harbor open. Unfortunately, about half that federal money is being diverted to the treasury for other uses.

That's unacceptable; but in Washington, unacceptable and $7 or so will buy you a cup of coffee.

Members of Congress from Great Lakes states are pushing to change that policy, but the odds are against them. As Rust Belt states, they have lost both population and industry over the past 20 years, and have a smaller Congressional delegation than ever. They tend to be heavily Democratic, which doesn't help when the Republican party rules the U.S. House and the purse strings. Even though President Barack Obama is from Chicago, he has no discernable pro-Great Lakes agenda.

This isn't just another "we don't get our share" complaint. There are commercial fishermen who depend on the Leland harbor to provide shelter and a base for their business, and Leland is an official port of refuge for sailors.

Onekama is totally dependent on the channel that connects Portage Lake, with its commercial marinas, to Lake Michigan. If trends continue, the same thing is going to happen to virtually every harbor, bay and marina on the lake.

It is old, old news that the Great Lakes are shrinking because of drought and rising temperatures. Eighty-degree temperatures in March and a near-total lack of snow pushed things along. A lack of ice to help slow evaporation make it worse. Water levels have fallen to near-record lows on Lakes Michigan and Huron, while Erie, Ontario and Superior are below their historical averages.

The continued trend toward weather extremes is likely to only accelerate those changes.

Economic losses are mounting. Cargo freighters can't carry as much, marinas are too shallow for pleasure boats and weeds are sprouting on exposed bottomlands.

The Army Corps of Engineers says about 30 small Great Lakes harbors will need attention in the next couple of years; making a list must depend on economics and safety most of all.

This is a critical issue that may fade during the winter months but will be back with a vengeance in the spring and summer, particularly if we have even an average snowfall.

Writing and calling your man or woman in Washington is about all you can do, beyond praying for snow and rain and lots of both.