It’s not the lack of rain, snow or ice cover that has the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition “making noise.”
It’s Washington’s failure to provide funds that would solve the problems — funds that are already there.
Undoubtedly, there are many harbors around the country that need some dredging, but none are likely to be louder about it than those on the Great Lakes since the call has been put out for all stakeholders to “make noise.”
The Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition is a group representing harbors around the Great Lakes where dredging issues are now a critical concern. The lake levels are hitting record lows because of the recent drought, a lack of winter ice cover that reduces lake evaporation and no heavy snow for several years in the region that spans from Minnesota to New York.
The result is boat groundings, lives endangered, damage to local economies, marinas too shallow for pleasure boats, weeds sprouting on exposed bottomlands, seriously reduced shipping cargos, an ever-growing backlog of maintenance and the deterioration of navigational infrastructure. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
What burns the coalition and many Great Lakes communities is that the funds for dredging already exist. They come from a tax on freight shipped at U.S. ports that generates about $1.5 billion a year. But about half of the money is never budgeted by the administration or appropriated by Congress. Thus, a $7 billion surplus is now sitting in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
Chuck May, chair pro tem of the coalition, offers this example of what’s happening or, rather, what’s not happening. Michigan has 56 harbors/channels that the federal government is responsible for maintaining, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to dredge only six of them this year.
The Army Corps gives top billing to large and medium-sized ports used by commercial vessels. Dave Wright, chief of operations with the Corps’ Detroit district office reportedly noted that smaller harbors, where traffic is mostly or entirely recreational, "are considered a lower priority under the constrained funding we have now.”
The coalition estimates that around the Great Lakes, $10 million annually is needed to dredge low-use commercial harbors and an additional $10 million annually would get the recreational harbors dredged. The Army Corps reportedly doesn’t disagree with the figures, but claims it can only spend what’s authorized by Congress. And Washington funding priorities have been directed at supporting big commercial navigation. Still, there’s $7 billion sitting in the trust fund.
Notably, in the past, many friendly members of Congress would earmark money into the federal budget to dredge a harbor. But, in today’s fiscal and political climate, earmarking isn’t easy to do. Unfortunately, the recent transportation reauthorization bill passed by Congress didn’t include a mandate for the 100 percent budgeting of the maintenance funds. It did, however, include a "Sense of Congress" calling on President Obama to start budgeting for all federal harbors in the 2014 budget proposal.
The Michigan Boating Industries Association is an active supporter of the coalition, calling the state’s harbors and marinas the gateways to the Great Lakes for more than 4 million boaters annually. MBIA acting executive director Nicki Polan emphasizes Michigan’s harbors provide economic stimulus to many communities and failure to maintain the channels limits access to the water and negatively impacts the state’s boat sales, marina occupancy, fuel sales and much more.
The “noise” the coalition is making is aimed squarely at Congress. Together with commercial groups like the Lake Carriers Association and American Great Lakes Ports Association, the coalition has called for reintroduction and passage of the Realize America’s Maritime Promise Act bills in the House (H.R.335 already has 48 co-sponsors) and the Senate (Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., will re-introduce his House bill) — both would mandate 100 percent budgeting/spending of the trust fund revenues for their intended purpose.
The Council of Great Lakes Governors (eight states) has applauded the bills and is arguing for passage to prevent the risk of harbor communities losing their harbor channels and their foundation of viability. In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder has publically stated that his administration will seek ways to help keep open these federal channels that are so critical to the economy and quality of life in Michigan.
May points out that the Great Lakes harbors and communities have been getting an “IV drip” of earmarks for the last 15 years, but now even the “drip” has been cut off, leaving some 98 harbors adrift throughout the nation’s inland seas.
That should not be allowed to stand, especially since the funding is sitting in Washington.