Dredging A Growing Concern

May 21, 2007
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HOLLAND — The late opening of the Holland harbor created some inventory concerns for Verplank Dock Co. The aggregate company, which supplied much of the concrete used in the construction of the M-6 South Beltline, was already opening the construction season with a shortage of supply following a dearth of shipping capacity at the close of last season. With the delayed dredging of the Holland harbor, the company needed to tap its Ferrysburg and Muskegon locations to meet demand.

“We can still satisfy our customers, but it’s not nearly as cost effective,” said Nate Gates, sales manager for Verplank Dock. “If the dredging doesn’t get done, the boats can’t come in, or they’re going to come in with a lighter load. Eventually, you’re going to see that cost reflected in prices, and the cost to the consumer will be tremendous.”

Dredging has become an intense issue for Great Lakes shippers, and an increasing difficulty for Holland. On a yearly basis, fall and winter storms drive sediment into the mouth of Lake Macatawa, which accumulates and creates an impassable “shoal.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dredging of the county’s commercial ports, targets an optimal depth, or draft, of 24 feet below the low-water mark in Holland harbor. In April, the shoal had risen to a draft of just over 16 feet. Holland-based King Co. removed a total of 34,000 cubic yards of sediment earlier this month, creating a 250-foot shipping lane and opening the port for business — more than a month behind schedule.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been hampered by inclement weather and severe funding cuts. Most recreational ports along the lakeshore will no longer be dredged using federal funds. And while there is currently no indication that the corps will cease dredging commercial ports, delays and shortcomings have impacted shipping volumes.

In January, the latest month for which data was available, the Lake Carriers’ Association reported that shipments of coal were at their lowest since 2003, the last time the Thunder Bay port on Lake Superior was out of operation. The 1.2 million tons shipped during that month does not include smaller commercial ports such as Holland, as the Holland Board of Public Works does not receive shipments during the winter, when the harbor is impassable.

Shipments of iron ore and limestone were up by roughly 3 percent in 2006, despite light loads on many vessels.

At the largest coal-shipping port in the U.S., Duluth/Superior in Wisconsin, 1,000-foot-long vessels were light-loading by as much as 4,500 tons for fear of running aground. The association estimates that nearly 270 tons of cargo are left behind for every inch of lost draft. For ocean-going vessels, each inch of lost draft costs 115 tons of cargo.

“Low water levels and dredging is the biggest issue confronting the industry right now,” said Bob Vande Vusse, a longtime shipping veteran who writes a column on the industry for the Holland Sentinel. “If they have to load light to keep their hulls off the bottom, that’s going to affect the cost of goods.”

A recent survey by the U.S. Maritime Association estimated that 75 percent of cargos on the Great Lakes in the past five years have been reduced in volume due to inadequate water depth at the loading or discharge port or a connecting channel.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget for dredging Great Lakes ports and waterways has been inadequate for decades,” said James Weakly, president of the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers Association. “The inability to fully maximize the efficiencies of waterborne commerce is affecting every customer of Great Lakes shipping.”

Commercial shipping does not have as large an impact in West Michigan as it does in some of the larger port communities. For this industry, dredging concerns are mostly focused on Holland, as Grand Haven has limited commercial shipping, and the deeper Muskegon harbor is not as sensitive to shoal development.

Locally, dredging is a greater concern for recreational boating. The corps no longer receives funding to dredge shallow-water ports such as those in Saugatuck, Pentwater and White Lake. In past years, Congressional delegates such as Rep. Pete Hoekstra have arranged the necessary funding, but have not had similar success under the Democratic-controlled Congress.

“Tourism is one of the economic drivers in this state, and if we can’t get those boats in the harbor, they’re not going to come here,” said State Sen. Patty Birkholtz, R-Saugatuck Township. Birkholtz and Sen. Gerald VanWoerkom, R-Muskegon, traveled up and down the lakeshore this year meeting with port communities. “This is not some pork barrel expense. This is people’s livelihoods.”

Tom O’Bryan, civil engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers in Grand Haven, which manages lakeshore dredging, said the corps’ hands are tied: “If we had the money, we’d dredge them all.”

The only way that any of the recreational ports will be dredged this year, he said, is if the communities raise the necessary funds themselves and partner with the corps. It would be cheaper to do so independently of the corps, he said, but the permitting process would take the better part of a year.


(Not So Deep) Water

Commercial Ports    

  Surveyed Depth 

 Preferred Depth

Holland

16 1/2 feet

24 feet

Grand Haven

20 feet

24 feet

Muskegon

28 feet

29 1/2 feet

Holland harbor was dredged earlier this month to its operating depth. Grand Haven is scheduled to be dredged this month as well.

Recreational Ports

Pentwater

7 feet

13 feet

Saugatuck

9 feet

13 feet

White Lake

       9 feet       

13 feet

Source: Army Corps of Engineers

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