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Legislation creates Great Lakes Navigation System

by Candice Miller on October 28, 2013

Beth LeBlanc

Times Herald

A federal bill passed through the House Wednesday could secure more funding for the Great Lakes.


The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 includes a provision from U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Twp., that would treat the Great Lakes basin as one navigation system.


Being treated as one navigation system would increase the lakes’ chances of getting more funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


“For the very first time in history, the Great Lakes will be looked at as a system,” Miller said. “It’s a huge step forward for the Great Lakes basin.”


Currently, the corps looks at each port in the Great Lakes individually when it determines eligibility for limited dredging and maintenance funds.


“They look at a specific port, which means we are working against each other in the Great Lakes basin,” Miller said.


But the overall tonnage carried on the lakes would qualify the system for more significant appropriations.


Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, said about 160 million tons of cargo are transported on the Great Lakes each year among U.S., Canadian, and ocean-going vessels.


The Lake Carriers Association represents about 57 U.S. flag-bearing vessels on the Great Lakes.


“Funding the Great Lakes as a navigation system, rather than pitting the ports against each other, will put us on equal footing,” Nekvasil said.


He said the extra funding is much needed since low water levels and a shortage of dredging funds have limited the tonnage freighters can carry.


“We have ships that are supposed to bring 70,000 tons of coal to the power plant in St. Clair, but now they’re only carrying 64,000 and, at times, it was less than that,” Nekvasil said.


Nekvasil said being treated as a system would allow the Great Lakes a “bigger piece of the pie.”


“Funding us as a system should bring more funding to the Great Lakes and give us more flexibility in how those funds are spent through the year,” he said.


Frank Frisk, maritime consultant at Vantage Point, said the legislation is good for all those on the Great Lakes.


“I think it’s going to be excellent for everybody — both for commercial and public use,” he said.


Miller said the Army Corps of Engineers would still oversee dredging operations, but would have more money to spend on individual lake ports.


The WRRDA bill allows for non-federal funding to be used on navigational systems. The navigation systems are usually under corps jurisdiction, but the bill would allow local or state funds to help with the corps dredging projects.


This spring, Michigan released millions of dollars in emergency dredging funds to about 49 areas in need of dredging — including the Black River in Port Huron, Lexington State Harbor, and Port Sanilac Harbor of Refuge.


The WRRDA also makes a provision to designate some of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to smaller recreational harbors.


The trust fund is financed by shipping fees and used for navigational channels or ports that accommodate freighters, Miller said.


The trust fund has been under some scrutiny lately as it had grown to about $7 billion by the end of fiscal year 2012, while shipping channels were desperate for dredging funds.


WRRDA would increase spending targets for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, as well.


Miller said the bill moves next to the Senate for approval. Miller said she feels confident about the vote in the Senate, given the 417 to 3 vote that approved the legislation in the House.

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