BY GLENN PUIT
FRANKFORT — Plans to close a popular fishing spot because of low water has prompted calls for the dredging of the Betsie River, a step fishermen said would keep their tourism dollars in the area for the long haul.
Some local officials agree. Joshua Mills, Frankfort's city manager, said city officials filled out a permit application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Quality for to dredge the mouth of the Betsie River where it meets Betsie Bay.
The city and other community leaders want to improve fish passageways at the river's mouth given the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' pending ban on fishing there in two weeks because of low water levels.
"We do have a permit application submitted to the Corps and the (DEQ)," Mills said. "It was submitted a little more than a week ago to get it into the hopper for the discussion."
The DNR said shallow water and fishing pressure potentially could keep salmon from swimming upstream to spawning grounds.
Fishermen said heavy rains in the area in the last week helped salmon find their way into the river. They said the long-term solution is dredging the river mouth to remove a buildup of sediment and sand.
"The rain is a band-aid," said Lon Busch, who's fished the river since the 1960s.
Nationally recognized sports writer Dave Richey also fished the Betsie River for decades and said the river mouth likely will need dredging.
"For eight or 10 years, that river mouth has been so shallow that at certain times in the late summer you can see (the salmon) go upstream with their backs out of the water," said Richey. "The buildup is so big now, it's becoming even more of a problem."
Busch said the river mouth needs to be dredged or the Frankfort-Elberta area will risk losing significant tourism dollars.
"You are fixing to head for a disaster," Busch said. "Those fish aren't going to be able to spawn. Restaurant people, hotel people, will feel it ... because word will get out that there's no fish in the Betsie, so don't go. It's a matter of economics."
Lake Michigan water levels threaten to reach an all-time low, so the issue has taken on political overtones in northern Michigan. State Rep. Ray Franz, R-101st District, recently issued a press release that calls on Congress to tap federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Funds for dredging and maintenance work at 15 harbors in Michigan with low water levels. His opponent in the state House race, Allen O'Shea, followed with a press release that seeks immediate action "to remediate the die-off of thousands of salmon in the Betsie River." The matter is "a real economic threat to the people who live along the river and Lake Michigan," O'Shea's release said.
Leaders of the Frankfort-Elberta and Benzie County chamber of commerces said they are researching solutions. Todd Kalish, the DNR's acting director of the Lake Michigan basin, said dredging is an expensive proposition. The U.S. Geological Survey is considering a study, but any dredging plans would take time.
"Dredging would be a very costly endeavor," said Kalish. "It would actually require some pretty significant planning if you are going to dredge something like that. You really need to study it. It's not something done lightly and in a short period of time."