Coastal communities in Michigan: Economic opportunities and Great Lakes responsibilities

Michigan coastal communities must cope emergency measures for access to harbors with no federal funding in 2012.

Michigan is blessed with 4000 miles of freshwater shoreline. In fact, 41 of the 83 counties that make up our state directly touch the Great Lakes. Many of the cities, villages and townships that are scattered along the coasts take full advantage of life along the Great Lakes, whether it is shipping goods, providing marinas to access the open waters of the Great Lakes or offering a highly desired quality of life where entrepreneurs desire to live and drive a thriving economy.  And, we should not forget the strong “linear magnet” effect that draws tourists from around the Midwest and across the country to our shores, particularly in the summer.

Living along the Great Lakes, however, requires managing a dynamic coast, protecting infrastructure and sometimes a lot of maintenance (like moving and blowing sand from beach parking lots). Coastal communities must survive the big blow, adjust to Great Lakes water level changes and allow for access to the waters of our state. Many people do not realize that Lake HarborMichigan shores are pounded by almost twenty-foot high incident waves once per year – that is a lot of energy.

One of the challenges for coastal communities in 2012, and beyond, is dealing with water depth in and out of access harbors. Dredging the sediment is usually involved, as it piles up based on storm energy and input from river and stream systems. Getting sailboats and other boats in and out of a quick brewing storm can be the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, there was near tragedy in 2007 off Manistee’s Portage Lake near Onekama as seasoned mariners were bringing back a 32’ boat from the Chicago-to-Mackinac race. The navigation chart showed plenty of depth for the vessel but, upon coming to Portage Lake entrance, the boat ran into only about three foot of depth and flipped. Thankfully, local charter boat captains went out and assisted in the rough seas, averting tragedy. This incident helped push the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition into existence to examine funding mechanisms and collectively discuss dredging issues.

In 2012, the federal government has not allocated any funds to dredge any small harbors in Michigan or the Great Lakes. In fact, there are already posted warnings by the US Army Corps of Engineers that as of November 2011, there is only 3feet available depth at Arcadia, Michigan (that should be maintained at 8 feet). Communities are considering options to fund and dredge in 2012, and beyond, without assistance from the federal governments.

In fall, 2011, the cities of Saugatuck & Douglas (Allegan County) jointly formed the new Kalamazoo Lake Harbor Authority to assist with dredging, maintaining and other harbor issues. Both cities held public hearings, used Act 94 Water Resource Improvement Tax Increment Finance Authority and an Act 7 Interlocal Cooperation Agreement to form the Authority. The Authority cannot tax and city councils must still approve any expenditure. Other communities may be considering other arrangements so they can get through the “crisis” of 2012 and hope the federal government re-establishes funding in future years.

Other commercial harbors have also had to have emergency measures put in place. In St. Joseph, Michigan an emergency $100,000 dredging was obtained in January 2012 from the US Army Corps of Engineers to allow commercial shipping to continue. Bills are pending in Congress (the Restore America’s Maritime Promise (RAMP Act) H.R. 104 and its Senate counterpart) to ensure that amounts credited to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund are used for harbor maintenance nationwide. 

Michigan Sea Grant Extension has been providing educational programs to coastal communities dealing with this crisis and assisting the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition. If you would like a presentation to your coastal community, please contact Mark Breederland ( / 231.922.4628) .

Michigan’s coasts are indeed a valuable treasure and important lifeblood to our new economy and creative management of these dynamic coastal areas will be needed even more in 2012.

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