Harbor Town Raises Money After Government Help Falls Short

Apr 13, 2017
Originally published on April 13, 2017 8:10 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we're going to go now to northern Michigan, the small harbor town of Leland explodes with tourists every summer. Many of those visitors come by boat from Chicago or Milwaukee. Right now, they can't, though. Leland Harbor is choked with silt. No boats can get in or out. As Aaron Selbig of Interlochen Public Radio reports, the 500 residents of Leland have decided to take matters into their own hands.

AARON SELBIG, BYLINE: Leland harbormaster Russell Dzuba is walking down a metal gangway to get a look at his harbor. Normally, there would be some activity this time of year, but the harbor is empty.

RUSSELL DZUBA: We're looking at water that's about six-inches deep right over there.

SELBIG: Six inches is not nearly enough depth for even a small motorboat. Normally, this channel would be about 12-feet deep, but it silts up every year as waves and storms push sand and sediment along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Someone did try to get a boat in last week, they got stuck in the sand. That's where a special boat comes in. It's outfitted with what looks like a huge straw with a drill bit on the end and it sucks the sand out from the lake bed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used to dredge Great Lake's harbors every year. But back in the '90s, that changed for small recreational harbors like Leland's, though it got special congressional funding. When that dried up, the Army Corps no longer had the money to dredge.

CHUCK MAY: They look upstream and try to get the money flowing down to them, and that's the problem.

SELBIG: That's Chuck May who runs the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition. He says harbor dredging is supposed to be covered by a special tax paid by shippers.

MAY: The tax has a very specific purpose to maintain the harbors. The simple solution is to start doing that.

SELBIG: Instead, the $1.5 billion or so collected by the tax every year was going directly into the federal budget. Marie Strum chief of engineering for the Detroit District of the Corps of Engineers says the Corps has been forced to give higher priority to big commercial harbors like Detroit and Cleveland.

MARIE STRUM: Recreational harbors are important to us. They are federal harbors, and we understand we have that responsibility. But it is simply a matter of not enough funds.

SELBIG: Three years ago, Congress mandated that the tax must be spent on things like dredging. But that's slowly being phased in over the next eight years, and Leland's residents decided their harbor couldn't wait. So the town launched an online crowdfunding campaign to raise a half million dollars to buy its own dredge. Restaurant owner Kate Vilter led the campaign. She says that thanks to the deep pockets of some of the town's summertime residents, the money was raised in less than a month.

KATE VILTER: Fifty thousand dollars from one and 25 from another, so people really got behind this project. And I think mainly because it was a permanent solution.

SELBIG: On Saturday, a big crane was getting ready to lift a 28-ton dredge boat off a flatbed truck and into the cold crystal clear Lake Michigan waters. Harbormaster Russell Dzuba is relieved they'll no longer have to rely on the federal government to keep his harbor open.

DZUBA: So there won't be the Helter-Skelter that goes on in January trying to locate funding. That's all done and over with. We're all done begging.

SELBIG: Next week, Dzuba and a crew of community volunteers will start up the dredge and begin sucking that mountain of sand out of the town's harbor. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Selbig. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.