Thursday, July 5, 2012


Virtually every commodity needed to sustain the 
Washington Island community is transported by ferry, 
in addition to daily carriage of vehicles and passengers.

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

Were it not for regular ferry service, island commerce and island living would be much different.  And were it not for a serviceable entrance to and from port, with sufficient depth to permit frequent and safe passage, that lifeline ferry service could be interrupted.

The Town of Washington's recent application for a Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation (WISDOT) Harbor Assistance Program (HAP) grant was turned down, but there are several reasons to remain optimistic, and to redouble efforts in obtaining project approval.  The elements are in place and a base of knowledge has been gathered.  It's a matter of finding the right funding sources, or combinations of support, that will move the project forward.   

Recent discussions by state and federal officials concerning the Town of Washington's application for dredging, at a meeting held in the Rutledge Room of the Island Community Center, Friday, June 22,  recognized the potential calamity that suspended or restricted navigation would cause should the lake level continue to drop.  It was further recognized that at this point there is no imminent danger of ferry service interruption due to depth, they said.  And an increase in channel depth through abundant rain and snow fall could also occur.  But it is just as likely the lake level could drop even further.

The funds that were requested to execute this dredging project, approximately $7.6 million,  exceeded the WISDOT HAP dollars available.  There were five other project applicants after those same dollars, and the available funds were split among three applicants.  One or more applicants had been rejected for a previous application.

The Detroit Harbor project, in order to be accepted, would either need to be scaled back, made less expensive, or applied for in two, separate funding cycles.  A stronger and more conclusive case also needs to be made for getting this work done now, before lake levels drop further.

The possibility of funding with tax revenues from two fiscal years is being reviewed for feasibility. There is extra cost in mobilizing equipment for two separate project contracts.  Doing so could also impact island roads over a longer period of time with heavy truck traffic.

There were questions regarding the Town's project application.  A crisis is not yet at hand, but is there a likelihood a low water crisis could occur in the next year or two?   What do long range lake level predictions tell us?   The general consensus among members of the citizen review was that this was a worthy project.  But in order for this to proceed, further engineering needs to be furnished to arrive at more exact dredge spoil quantities.

Another question asked was, what type of bottom material would be encountered?   Might this channel accumulate silt within a 10 or 20 year period and have to be dredged again soon?   From dredging experiences and from numerous core samples that have already been taken, sediments of rock, clay and muck predominate.  There is no sand or gravel.  There has been no silting since the federal channel was dredged in 1937.   Would the type and quality of dredged material be useful for beach nourishment?  The likely answer to reusing dredge spoils on beaches is no, because they would lack the clean material useful for recreational shorelines.

The question was asked, how can engineering go forward when there is yet no approved state project?  The HAP grant program will fund final engineering, but only after the project has been accepted for grant funds.   The state will not provide engineering funds for projects that may not receive approval for construction.

Keep the project moving

There is greater momentum on the Detroit Harbor dredging project than ever before, with increased knowledge and interest on the part of principals representing state, federal and local agencies and governments.  It seems most useful to keep this project alive, even if that means the Ferry Line offers to help fund the additional engineering.

That is what the Ferry Line recently offered to do.  On July 3rd, the Ferry Line signed a contract with Foth Environmental for a continuation of their professional services, a figure that could approach $13,000, to provide finer project detail.  Through this sponsorship, the Ferry Line as a corporation recognizes that its vessels are a major user of this waterway.  We have long held that the Detroit Harbor federal channel is a highway, with both public benefit and public responsibility.  It is, in the end, the public's burden to maintain an essential channel for navigation.

For those who may still be skeptics, and who think that somehow this project will bestow special privilege or profit to the Washington Island Ferry Line, let us be clear:    there is no profit to be gained in dredging, nor is there profit in damaging vessels due to shallow waters.  Likewise, there will be no profit if ever we are forced to operate at reduced capacity, in an effort to avoid touching bottom.

Additionally, the immediate impact of lower lake levels to WIFL operations will be in late fall, winter and early spring, when lake levels are typically at their annual low, and the presence of ice requires use of our deepest draft vessel, Arni J. Richter.

Sufficient water depth and room to maneuver are the very basics of ferry transportation, and there are many cities, counties and states that have placed dollars on the line to attract or sustain regular ferry service.  Channel improvement is a rightful goal to be supported by all of Washington Island citizens, as well as the State of Wisconsin.

In pursuing all possibilities of action, we can't excuse the federal government, which dredged the channel in the first place and has ultimate responsibility for maintaining the charted depth.  But as a practical matter, the process of obtaining federal funding is difficult and lengthy (2016 or 2017 at the earliest, and then only if fast-tracked and accepted) and competition with other, larger ports for federal dollars is stiff.  Then there is the matter of cost benefit.  In this category Washington Island has difficulty proving that dredging dollars are well spent, that they will bring an effective return over time.

The best argument, it seems, is that without dredging, this community, its citizens and properties, will be up a creek at some point with low water.  When that happens, Washington Island will become a liability to the State.

To further facilitate getting this project done, State Senator Frank Lasee has suggested placing a special bill before the state legislature.  We're pleased to have his support, and Washington Island residents ought to back his efforts, whatever he determines is the most expedient course for funding.
       - Dick Purinton