The proposed reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act now making its way through Congress will finally move projects on the Great Lakes from the back of the funding line.
In the past, priority was given to projects that would improve deep-water ports, ignoring the smaller ports on the Great Lakes that together make up a sizable share of the nation’s shipping commerce. The new proposal would dedicate 20 percent of any new revenues coming in to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to “projects that are a priority for navigation in the Great Lakes navigation system.”
The money would allow dredging at Great Lakes ports that are hurting because of low water levels on the lakes.
The legislation has passed the Senate. The House should follow suit, though both houses should take care that the need to boost economic activity does not trump the environment.
Emergency authorizations have been made in the last year or so to deal with the low water levels. The new legislation would make that work routine.
Low water is a particular problem in the upper Great Lakes, where Lakes Michigan and Huron are at all-time lows. The low water reduces the amount of cargo that ships can carry into port. Reducing a harbor’s depth by one or two feet can translate into millions of dollars in commerce lost.
Locally, the money could assist in future dredging efforts in the Black Rock Canal and parts of the Niagara River.
A massive dredging project by the Corps of Engineers that is under way in the Buffalo River is not an effort to improve navigation. That dredging will transform the Buffalo River from an industrial dumping ground to a working waterway where people can swim and fish.
However, the environmental controls in place show that dredging can be done in an environmentally friendly way. The Corps of Engineers, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Honeywell Corp. and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper are partners in that effort.
Besides finding the money needed to improve navigation, the legislation will also bring some much-needed attention to the very real challenge of Great Lakes water levels. As the global climate changes, the lakes will likely continue to drop, and the real impacts on the economy will have to be dealt with.
Oftentimes, Great Lakes communities don’t think about water conservation, sitting as they are next to more than one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. It becomes a concern when millions of dollars have to be shelled out to maintain shipping channels or deal with algae blooms and invasive species.