Study: Shallow harbors might harm boat economy
Written by Muskegon Chronicle   
Thursday, 12 July 2007 06:53

A ground-breaking study has found that Great Lakes boaters spend $16 billion a year on buying and using their boats, creating about 250,000 direct and spinoff jobs in the region.

It is the first study to assess the economic impact of recreational boating on the Great Lakes economy.

But the study, released Wednesday by the Great Lakes Commission, found that boating in the eight Great Lakes states is endangered by low water levels and a lack of dredging in the region's 87 harbors by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Ever-tightening budgets mean the Corps is no longer allowed to dredge recreational harbors from its general budget -- even though it built many of them -- unless it gets a specific appropriation from Congress.

For local communities situated on popular inland lakes such as Pentwater and the White Lake area, dredging of the channels that connect to Lake Michigan are vital.

"It is very important," village manager Tim Taylor said of boating's impact on Pentwater and the need for a navigable channel. "Historically, the Corps of Engineers has done it and they need to continue."

Pentwater's channel used to be dredged every year, but it is not scheduled for this year. Village president Juanita Pierman said this week sandbars have built up in Lake Michigan both south and north of the channel pierheads, cutting depths entering the channel to 6 feet in some areas.

The White Lake Channel has gone much longer without dredging. The Corps last dredged the channel in 2001.

"If it continues, the White Lake Channel will just fill right in," said Brandon Belinger, a charter boat captain out of Whitehall. "It's only 8 to 81/2 feet in places right now."

Dave Ross, general manager of Ellenwood Landing Marina in Montague, said the effect on the White Lake community, including all of the marinas, would be detrimental if dredging does not take place and the channel depth continues to lessen.

"We all have a major stake here," Ross said. "If the channel is impassable, that's going to take a lot of boats out of here."

Last week, Michigan's U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow said they inserted $53 million in a Senate appropriations bill to direct the Corps to dredge recreational and commercial Great Lakes harbors.

But some observers say the bills have little chance of passage when the federal government is spending billions of dollars a year in Iraq and faces numerous other budget strains.

Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry, chairman of the Great Lakes Commission, said in a teleconference Wednesday that a permanent funding source for dredging silt and sand that is filling in harbors is needed.

"We need more than stop-gap solutions," Cherry said.

The study found that boaters in the eight Great Lakes states -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania -- spend $11.5 billion a year just on trips, about the same amount the auto industry spends on research and development.

"Recreational boating is an economic driver in this state," said Tim Eder, executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Commission.

Of the 4.3 million boats registered in the eight Great Lakes states in 2003, 953,554 of them were in Michigan, according to the study. The state ranks third nationally, behind Florida and California in boat registrations.

Great Lakes Commission officials say the lack of dredging in Great Lakes harbors is even hindering the work of the Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies, whose boats operate out of the region's recreational harbors.

In addition to the natural filling in of silt, harbors are also facing another threat.

If climate change is responsible for lower water levels, shallow-water harbors "might be a way of life for quite some time," Knight said
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