Leland Harbormaster Russell Dzuba is walking down a metal gangway to get a look at the harbor in this northern Michigan town.
Normally, there would be some activity this time of year – but the harbor is empty.
“We’re looking at water that’s about six inches deep right over there,” he says.
This channel should 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.
That’s bad news for this small town, which explodes with tourists every summer. Many are drawn to Fishtown, a historic village of wooden fishing shanties that stands as a monument to Leland’s heritage.
Until recently, it looked like the town would be closed to anyone coming by boat, including tourists from Chicago or Milwaukee.
Now Leland is fighting back with a special new boat. It’s outfitted with what looks like a huge straw with a drill bit on the end, and sucks the sand from the lakebed.
This week, the boat is scheduled to start working to open the harbor.
Small harbors like Leland don’t usually have their own 28-ton dredge boat. But with no federal money available, the town got another idea – an online crowd-funding campaign.
Restaurant owner Kate Vilter led the campaign that raised $275,000 to help Leland buy the equipment.
“Fifty-thousand dollars from one … twenty-five from another,” she says. “So people really got behind this project, I think mainly because it was a permanent solution.”
Vilter says that thanks to the deep pockets of some of the town’s summertime residents, the money was raised in less than a month.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used to dredge Great Lakes harbors every year. But now the agency focuses on major ports like Detroit and Cleveland.
Marie Strum, chief of engineering for the Detroit District of the Corps of Engineers says there are 80 recreational harbors on the Great Lakes. They range from Cape Vincent at the eastern edge of Lake Erie to Whitefish Point on Lake Superior.
“Recreational harbors are important to us,” Strum says. “They’re federal harbors, and we understand we have that responsibility. It’s simply a matter of not enough funds.”
Chuck May disagrees. He runs the Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition. And he says dredging is supposed to be covered by a special tax paid by shippers.
“The tax has a very specific purpose – to maintain the harbors. The simple solution is start doing that,” he says.
Instead, the $1.5 billion or so collected by the tax every year has been going directly into the federal budget.
Three years ago, Congress mandated that the tax be spent on things like dredging. But that’s being phased in over eight years, and Leland’s residents decided their harbor couldn’t wait.
On a recent day, a big crane lifted the dredge boat off a flatbed truck and into the cold, crystal clear Lake Michigan waters.
Harbormaster Dzuba is relieved he’ll no longer have to rely on the federal government to keep his harbor open.
“So there won’t be the helter-skelter that goes on in January, trying to locate funding,” he says. “That’s all done and over with. We’re all done begging.”
Dzuba and a crew of community volunteers hope to finish the dredging by mid-May.
Of course, not every harbor town on the Great Lakes has the money to buy its own dredging equipment. A few have asked to borrow Leland’s boat.
Dzuba says he’s sympathetic, but the equipment is just too difficult to move.