Water levels could cause problems for future dredging

ALPENA – The City of Alpena is in line for an $800,000 grant that would dredge the downtown harbor, which will enable larger vessels, particularly large sailboats to enter, because of the decline in water depths in Lake Huron coupled with the fact the harbor hasn’t been dredged in more than 20 years.

Alpena Harbor Master Don Gilmet said he was at a meeting in Lansing on Wednesday to discuss long-term plans for harbors throughout the state. He said the funding is part of an emergency plan to deal with the need of low water levels inside harbors and will be made available through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources once it get approval from the state House of Representatives and the Senate. All told the plan includes 49 harbors in the state at an estimated cost of $23 million.

Gilmet said even though the funds haven’t been officially approved the wheels are in motion to get all of the needed pieces in place for the project could begin this summer.

“We will be able to do the entire harbor and we would begin it after the Michigan Brown Trout Festival,” Gilmet said. “We have our permits in, but before anything else can happen the money needs to get appropriated by the legislature. While I was in Lansing we were talking to senators and representatives and they are all on board to do that.”

The emergency money for the dredging will come at the expense of other upgrades the harbors were scheduled to received. Gilmet said the harbor operators around the state were contacted about the state’s plan and were in favor of it.

“The DNR are going to take some of the money from the waterways and other sources will actually delay some other projects they were planning on doing, such as fixing launches or replacing docks,” Gilmet said. “They called all of the harbor communities who were slated to get that money and apparently they were all glad to say they would rather take the dredging and we’ll worry about the other projects next year.”

Rep. Peter Petallia said earlier this week a special waterways caucus was established made up of Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate from districts being impacted by the low water levels. He said when it is time for a vote he believes the support to have the money allocated for dredging will be sufficient enough to pass. Pettalia said normally funding for dredging and harbor maintenance comes from the federal government, but with all of the uncertainties in Washington the state believed it would be wise to take action now and not wait.

“I believe once we bring this forth we will be able to convince the right amount of people to vote to appropriate the money,” Pettalia said. “Some of this is really the responsibility of the federal government but they are holding money back for reasons we’re not aware of. We can not stand by and wait this is effecting not only the tourism, but also the commercial sector of coastline communities as well.”

Gilmet said the Army Corps of Engineers have been closely monitoring the severity of the water depth decline and projects it will get worse. He said that is why getting the harbors cleaned out so all types of boats can reach a slip is important. Gilmet said when boats can’t access a harbor it takes it toll of the local economy. If the water drops as much as the Corps expects, many coastal communities will be impacted.

“They say they expect this year the actual water levels to drop another 12 to 18 inches below the chart data, which is the little line that shows the depth of like a channel. The actual depth this year could be a foot to a foot and a half below that line,” Gilmet said. “Once the dredging is done we won’t have any issue for any types of boats coming into the harbor and having the people visit the downtown or stay a few days.”

Gilmet said once the money is secured the city will engineer the project and then put bids out for companies to come in and do the work. He said a barge with a large crane will be used to remove the built up dirt and debris. Gilmet said the city also will have to have what is removed tested.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689.