Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Detroit Harbor aerial photo, several years ago.
(Ed Graf photo)

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Recently, on Friday, January 20th, the Town of Washington Board approved an application for grant funds from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) and its Harbor Assistance Program (HAP).  This is the first official step taken by the Town toward dredging the West Channel entrance to Detroit Harbor, a vital year-around navigational link for commercial water transportation to and from the island.

Although the case had been made for dredging several years ago by the Town to Senator Russ Feingold, Rep. Steve Kagen, representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Wisconsin's Governor Doyle, the reality is that federal funding allocations take years to work their way through Congress,  even when all political cylinders are "clicking."  It would be a very long shot, indeed.

However, this harbor project fits well within the scope of typical state HAP projects.  In fact, there are several Wisconsin commercial harbors, also with federal channels, that receive assistance on a regular basis in order to improve or expand port facilities and to keep them open through dredging.

When looking at Detroit Harbor's channel and the last time it was dredged (by the federal government in 1937) this may be the appropriate time to improve depths and widen the channel.  It is absolutely essential that Detroit Harbor be kept open and safe for vessel navigation, in particular for the commercial ferries that provide year around service.   It was noted by state officials who reviewed channel dimensions during preliminary discussions that lake levels are low now, but they may drop even lower.  Given the Island's dependency on this navigational channel.  The Town's proposed Detroit Harbor project could be considered urgent in nature.

The grant request amount is for $7.6 million dollars, which represents the State's portion, or 80% of project cost.  This is money that would be paid from the HAP Fund, tax dollars that have been set aside by the Wisconsin Legislature for the Harbor Assistance Program Fund.  This Fund is designed to maintain and improve Wisconsin's commercial ports.  The Town of Washington's contribution of $1.9 million, the remaining 20%, would then be contributed through "tippage," a term that refers to the disposal of spoils at an approved Town site, or sites, with grading and seeding afterward as necessary.

The behind-the-scenes work to put such a project together is considerable, and it balances the local needs for safe harbor navigation with the Town's ability to participate, given the large figures involved.  Obviously, if an actual cash payment from taxes were required, this project could not even be considered.

Chairman Joel Gunnlaugsson and the Town of Washington Supervisors should be commended for their ability to see this project's benefits through the rather daunting amount of engineering and paperwork the application requires.  Included is an engineering study based on recent soundings, and the expertise to complete the application.  The Town was assisted by Foth & Van Dyke Engineering of Green Bay, a company familiar with marine construction projects and also the State of Wisconsin HAP grant process.

Included in the Town's HAP Grant Application were elements of the Engineering Feasibility study and the Environmental Feasibility study. These components ensure that the quantities of proposed dredging spoils are accurately tabulated, and that mud, clay and rock material removed will be disposed of in a manner that will not harm the environment.

The project's scope includes, in general terms, channel widening from 150 to 170 feet, and channel depth from -14 ft. LWD (low water datum) to - 17 ft. LWD.   Since there was little to no silting in the channel in the years after it was dredged in 1937, it is anticipated that given the somewhat predictable lake levels over time, these new dimensions will be adequate for the near future.

It was further noted in the Grant Application that commercial traffic, namely ferry vessels, have increased in draft and beam, and also in the number of annual round trips made.  It may be said that the island community has become ever more dependent for economic and lifeline existence on water transportation, and less self-sufficient than in 1937 when commercial fishing and farming were primary economic contributors and people and goods moved with lesser frequency over water.

Winter harbor photo taken prior to 1995. 

Note:  I was asked a few years ago by a friend who considered purchasing land on Washington Island, "What would happen if the water dropped even more, and the ferry couldn't get into port?"  I somewhat casually replied, "We would all be in trouble then."  
   In fact, as remote a scenario as this seemed, we ultimately have little control over weather patterns and the precipitation and evaporation rates that control the Great Lakes levels.  We could, therefore, just as easily see a drop of several more feet in lake level as maintain or gain lake depth.  If such a drop occurred, we and other shoreline communities would be scrambling to deepen our ports and waterways in order to survive.  This recent Town application for a WisDOT-HAP Grant addresses my friend's question more directly than I did, and it is a fundamental question  anyone who wishes to live here or to own property here might rightly ask.            

-  Dick Purinton

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