LAKESHORE — As West Michigan boaters store their watercraft for the winter, they would do well to think twice when they put their vessels back in the water next year.
That’s because the United States Army Corps of Engineers predicts water levels for Lake Michigan next year will likely meet or set record lows, levels not seen since 1964, according to the December 2012 Monthly Bulletin of Great Lakes Water Levels.
The drop in water levels comes after the Great Lakes Basin had a dry year, having only received 87 percent of the precipitation it normally receives, the bulletin stated.
“There’s going to be more boats running aground and having damages because of the low water,” said Wade Eldean of Eldean Shipyard on Lake Macatawa.
Eldean expects his shop will be busy servicing plenty of boats in the coming summer.
“A lot of the places that are nice areas to go water skiing or wakeboarding will be much more difficult with the drop in water level,” he said. “Your sailing area ... is going to decrease quite a bit.”
While the low water levels will keep repair shops busy, many businesses and communities across West Michigan worry what the extreme conditions will mean for recreation and tourism, as well as the ecology of the lakes.
“When lake levels are low, that’s going to have all sorts of economic impacts,” said Nick Occhipinti, director of policy and community activism at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. “From marinas having to dig out a little bit so they can hold as many slips ... then there’s of course the amount of freight that freighters can carry ... and then there’s the whole ecological issue.”
These record low water levels will cause problems for smaller communities along the lakeshore that are already struggling to keep their harbors open and their marinas deep enough for recreational boaters. As federal funding becomes scarcer for dredging projects, communities on the lakeshore have to fund harbor maintenance themselves.
Of those communities, Saugatuck faces a particular challenge in coping with the situation, said Felicia Fairchild, executive director at the Saugatuck-Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau. While parts of Kalamazoo Lake were dredged in the last year, the water levels will still hamper navigation through the waterbody and its main channel, she said.
“It’s definitely going to have an impact on many of the slip owners here,” Fairchild said. “Motor boaters and recreational boaters are going to have a hard time getting into certain parts of our lake. There are certain slips that aren’t going to have any water.”
Likewise, Holland’s Lake Macatawa is experiencing low levels that are worsened by the constant stream of silt running into the lake from the Black River. Working in Holland’s favor is that, unlike Saugatuck’s recreational designation, it is a commercial harbor that’s regularly dredged because the community’s power plant uses coal delivered by freighters. The presence of a coal-fired power plant on the waterfront is an automatic trigger that puts the Army Corps of Engineers on the hook to maintain the harbor at a sufficient depth.
“Lake Mac(atawa) is by nature not a very deep lake, so it becomes usable for pleasure craft largely because we have the ability to have it dredged,” said Holland Mayor Kurt Dykstra. “So low lake levels don’t help that circumstance at all.”
Holland’s harbor is maintained by funding through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, a fund established in 1986 to provide for the maintenance of all federally authorized harbors. However, in recent years the federal government has only used the funds to maintain Great Lakes harbors that deal in over 1 million cubic tons of cargo per year, or, like Holland, service a power plant.
This means that communities like Saugatuck are left to fend for themselves. In the past, recreational harbor dredging was supported through earmarks in the federal budget, but that practice fell out of favor with Congress in recent years.
While Fairchild said that the community is developing emergency dredging procedures to keep the harbor serviceable to both commercial and recreational traffic, it is struggling to identify funding for those emergency plans, especially since it sits on a Superfund Site. The plan being developed involves dredging four separate channels in Kalamazoo Lake, the first of which Fairchild said would cost slightly more than $1 million.
“Once we have a plan in place, then we have to go after the agencies to find the funding,” Fairchild said. “That’s the hard part.”
While Holland’s harbor currently receives regular dredging, Dykstra still has some concerns about future harbor maintenance if lake levels remain low or continue to drop.
That’s exacerbated by the Holland Board of Public Works’ decision to get away from coal-fired power generation in favor of producing power from natural gas. If the James DeYoung plant is converted to burn natural gas, the community will likely lose the federal funding for dredging to maintain the harbor.
“Right now, Holland is a commercial harbor in a large measure due to the coal shipments,” Dykstra said. “When that goes away, a lot of our commercial tonnage goes away, and that’s frankly going to cause us some issues.
“So you add the unknown variable of low lake levels to the known variable of the ending coal shipments, and this creates a very uncertain circumstance.”
Dykstra said it’s tough to predict the overall impact on various marina owners, but “I can only speculate that it’s not good.”
Because the two communities depend heavily on tourism as a source of revenue, the navigability of the harbors in Saugatuck and Holland is an important factor for both cities to consider.
“Tourism is a big piece of our local economy, especially in summertime, and our proximity to water certainly is a large piece of that tourism draw,” Dykstra said. “Recreational boating remains very, very robust.”
Eldean Shipyard is located in a deeper part of Lake Macatawa and likely will be able to avoid having to dredge the areas around its slips, Eldean said. However, the low levels have forced the marina to lower some of its fixed docks. He said he anticipates his marina might pick up some business since some of his competition might simply be too shallow for some boats.
In Saugatuck, recreational boating is about a $25 million piece of the $255 million annual tourism industry, Fairchild said. The low water levels “will have an impact, but we’re hoping again that it’s cyclical and that water levels will start to go up again,” she said.