WILSON – Tourism along Lake Ontario, which features fishing as well as recreational boating, is big business in Niagara County, where people from all over the world are drawn to the natural amenities and are estimated to spend around $30 million annually.

But local officials are afraid that the word is out among boaters to stay clear of Wilson’s harbor for fear of getting stuck in the muck.

That’s why town officials are looking to the federal government to provide funds for much-needed dredging.

“We’re at a critical stage in Wilson Harbor,” said Town Supervisor Joseph Jastrzemski.

The muck is actually silt – a combination of sand, stone and mud – and local officials and boating enthusiasts believe the growing levels of silt are long overdue for removal and that it should be financed by the federal government.

Town officials estimate that Wilson Harbor accommodates more than 700 boats and 500 Canadian visitors each year. It’s also home to four yacht clubs, 50 charter boat ventures and a number of small businesses from tackle shops to restaurants that support the industry.

But as the level of silt rises in the harbor, the number of boaters drops because they’re afraid of getting marooned, local residents said.

Town officials say the answer is “dredging” – the process of sucking the growing layers of sand, stone and mud created by the constant waves of Lake Ontario out of the channel connecting the lake to the quiet harbor waters where boats dock. Town officials said estimates from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicate cost of the total project, including disposal of the silt, could be between $755,000 and $2 million depending on the toxicity of the materials.

The question is: Who is going to pay for it?

Jastrzemski maintains that the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund holds approximately $6.2 billion originally intended for dredging and general maintenance of its harbors. The organization finances the dredging work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He pointed out that the Army Corps’ policy is to dredge every “three to five years and this hasn’t been dredged since the early 1990s to the proper levels.”

The Wilson Town Board signed a resolution last fall urging “immediate assistance” for harbor maintenance dredging. The board is appealing to county and state officials – and now the federal government – to help its cause.

Last month, the board sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, urging it to include local dredging funds in President Obama’s request for $60.4 billion in response, recovery and mitigation costs related to Hurricane Sandy, noting that Wilson’s problem is also “a natural disaster in the Great Lakes region.”

The board pointed to the backlog of more than 18 million cubic yards of sediment throughout the Great Lakes navigation system, requiring some $200 million to address. It also quoted an estimate of $30 million in dredging funding to restore basic functionality to the Great Lakes system in response to the low water levels – a figure supplied by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The letter further states that the continued lack of rain and snowfall in the Great Lakes Basin has resulted in “water levels at historic lows, which affects municipal and domestic water use, ecosystems, hydropower operations, shoreline erosion and protection, and shipping and boating activities.”

Jastrzemski said he has been reaching out for the past seven years to local politicians for help. He took his plea to the state level this past fall when he invited State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, to tour the harbor. He also has appealed to Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, to no avail, he said.

Jastrzemski recalled that the Corps “did a little bit of work” on the harbor in 2000 but hasn’t revisited it since.

“This year, we lost two months of our boating season, and one of our marina [owners] told me he lost over $100,000 in business,” Jastrzemski said. “Boaters weren’t even booking, and he didn’t open gas pumps because of the silt and lower lake levels.

The supervisor calls the harbor “a lifeline for Wilson,” but the effects of low water levels do not stop there. A study by Niagara University on the local boating and fishing industry found that it generated more than $30 million a year for Niagara County.

Lisa Stephens, past commodore of the Wilson Yacht Club., said a block and tackle had to be used to pull the sailboats out that were stuck in the mud last summer. The harbor, which normally has water that is 8 to 10 feet deep, had only 32 inches.

“This has ended a lot of people’s boating seasons early,” she said. “We pulled our boat out in August and most people usually don’t pull their boats out until Halloween.”

Stephens coordinated an effort to help the town file an application for Niagara River Greenway Commission funding for a major engineering plan which would include testing, analysis, developing a cleanup plan, securing permit applications and overseeing the project. The plan is estimated to cost, at most, $175,000 and is under consideration.

While Olcott harbor also needs to be dredged, Newfane Supervisor Timothy Horanburg said his hamlet finds itself in a different situation due to federal labeling.

“Wilson is designated a federal harbor of refuge through its piers and up into its channel, but Olcott is a federal harbor only between its piers,” Horanburg said. “Why it’s designated this way, we don’t have a clue. It wouldn’t do us any good to have them dredge just there because the silt would wash right back in.”

Without federal funding, who would foot the bill for Olcott’s dredging?

“You’re looking at him,” Horanburg said. “We’ve been looking for grant money, but there’s none out there for this. Olcott was dredged back in probably 1995 or 1996 and we definitely need it again.”

Horanburg said his board supports Wilson’s efforts to procure federal funding for dredging.

“If they can get the equipment in to dredge Wilson, it would save us $70,000 to $100,000 just in equipment mobilization costs,” Horanburg said. “So it would definitely benefit us to do this at the same time, because we’d probably hire the same contractor.

Bernard “Bernie” Leiker, deputy mayor of the Village of Wilson, said his board is also “pressuring” the government to provide funds to dredge the harbor.

“This has a huge economic impact on us because we have a lot of boats coming in from Canada, and now they go to other harbors,” he added.

“This is a community that depends on the boaters, and we’re all losing a lot of money.”