Candice Miller: Bipartisan legislation aims to aid Great Lakes waterways

Jun 23, 2013 Issues: Great Lakes

Among the greatest blessings bestowed on us as inhabitants of this place called Michigan is to be surrounded by the most magnificent body of freshwater on the planet.

The beauty and wonder of the Great Lakes define who and where we are, and provide us with boundless opportunity for recreation and commerce.

But today the use of these waters — stretching 2,400 miles from the western end of Lake Superior to the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the Atlantic Ocean — is threatened by our inability to maintain the navigability of their ports, harbors and channels.

A decade of below-normal water levels and limited federal funding for harbor dredging and infrastructure repair has dramatically curtailed shipping and made some of our recreational harbors nearly unusable.

That is why a bipartisan group of my colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives and I recently introduced legislation, the Great Lakes Navigation System Sustainability Act (H.R.2273), to redefine how the Great Lakes are treated in the competition for U.S. government harbor maintenance funding, and to create the opportunity for recreational harbors to vie for federal funding as well.

Our proposal (co-sponsored by Michigan U.S. Reps. Dan Benishek and Bill Huizenga) would designate the Great Lakes, the waterways that connect them and the St. Lawrence Seaway as a single Great Lakes navigation system. This is the same way other inland waterways, such as the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio river systems, are treated today by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the harbor maintenance fund.

Additionally, the legislation would establish a $200 million annual minimum funding level for projects in the Great Lakes system. Since the mid-1990s, funding for dredging and infrastructure projects (such as the construction and maintenance of breakwaters and jetties) on the Great Lakes has been less than $100 million a year. That, for a commercial shipping system that contributes $33.5 billion a year to the region’s economy and provides 227,000 living wage jobs.

Another 107,000 jobs rely on safe, navigable waterways for our recreational boating industry, which has been hard hit by the low water levels.

Our legislation also would authorize the Army Corps to prioritize funding for dredging of recreational harbors where local interests can provide a 50 percent match. Spending on these smaller, but crucial, projects has nearly evaporated since Congress enacted a ban on appropriations earmarks.

It is important to note the Great Lakes Navigation System Sustainability Act does not call for any added federal revenue. The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund relies entirely on fees collected from the commercial users of U.S. ports, and no increase in those fees is proposed.

In recent years, however, spending on harbor and channel projects has lagged significantly behind collections to the fund, resulting in a $7 billion surplus. At the same time, the estimated backlog of dredging and harbor infrastructure projects in the Great Lakes has grown to $600 million.

Under our plan, that backlog would be addressed over the next 10 years, restoring our ports and harbors to a condition where they can more fully reach their potential as an engine of economic growth.

For generations, Michigan residents have regarded the Great Lakes as a great gift to all who live here. We have fought to protect them, and we have enjoyed the bounty they provide.

The Great Lakes Navigation System Sustainability Act will help ensure future generations have the same opportunity.

Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, serves the 10th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.