Lower Water Levels Dry Up Business On Great Lakes

The Great Lakes drought is affecting the survival of some of the small harbor towns located on North Michigan's shore. Melissa Block speaks with Russell Dzuba, the harbormaster in Leland, Mich., where a line of sand is cutting through his harbor.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Further north, people around the Great Lakes are also hoping for rain or a lot of snow this winter. Because of the drought, water levels have fallen to alarming lows, with near-record lows on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. For communities along the lakes, that means a financial squeeze if it creates trouble for boats and keeps tourists away. Russell Dzuba is seeing this firsthand. He's the harbormaster in Leland, Michigan, and he joins me from his office looking out over the harbor. Mr. Dzuba, welcome to the program. Thanks for being with us.

RUSSELL DZUBA: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And let's place you there. If Michigan looks like a mitten, right, you're up where the top of the pinky would be, right, in the northwest, near Traverse City, right on Lake Michigan?

DZUBA: That's correct.

BLOCK: Well, if you look out your window right now, looking out at the harbor, tell us what you see. What does it look like?

DZUBA: There's a strand of sand that would allow me to walk around the entire inside of the harbor, and that ordinarily is not a good thing in a harbor. At this point, I'm looking at cormorants and seagulls and ducks lulling about on a beach inside of my harbor, so it's not a pleasant sight.

BLOCK: Mm. So you've got some beachfront where there shouldn't be beachfront.

DZUBA: Absolutely.

BLOCK: Have you ever seen the lake this low before?

DZUBA: I remember back in 1964 I lived over on the Lake Huron side in that time, and it was low, but this is drastic. West Grand Traverse Bay is low. Folks who live along that shoreline now have an extra 100 or 150 feet of beach, and believe me, it's not sand. It's rock, and it's not a very attractive asset to lake-front property.

BLOCK: Well, what does it mean for Leland when water levels drop like this? What's the effect?

DZUBA: Well, for us, you know, the one thing that we learned right away that word travels across the water much faster than it does through the air. And if folks get an idea that there's a problem navigating a channel at Leland, they will just go by us. And if we miss out on two or 10 or 20 boats a day, it hurts us. It hurts the grocery stores. It hurts the restaurants. It hurts the shops. It hurts the harbor. And so we need to keep the channel dredged, and we need to have navigable space to accommodate our guests.

BLOCK: And what about dredging? Is there a hang-up there?

DZUBA: Well, dredging is the issue. That's what gets people in and out. A brief history is the harbor is a federal harbor of refuge, and along with that came maintenance dredging every year till about 1999, and the corps no longer dredged recreational shoal draft harbors.

BLOCK: This is the Army Corps of Engineers.

DZUBA: The Army Corps. And then - we then had to ask our legislatures for an earmark, an appropriation each and every year, and that worked until 2007 when Congress abolished the earmarks.

BLOCK: Aha.

DZUBA: Since then, '07, we had to pay for it. We had a fundraiser and collected, and then we had to pay again last year, and it amounts to $175,000. And so we're, you know, plodding along - fundraising and, you know, trying to cook up ideas on how to keep the channel open.

BLOCK: Well, you've got to be hoping for a lot of snow this winter to bring those water levels up.

DZUBA: Absolutely. We had an incredibly warm season - warm winter season last year, and we lost a lot of water to evaporation, and that takes place during the whole winter, as well as the summer. And if we can get some snowpack up on Lake Superior and then, of course, freezing. Traditionally, we don't freeze as we did in the old days. It used to freeze all the way across the channel, 11 miles out to North Manitou Island. That hasn't happened here in a number of years. It's an uphill battle, but, you know, who thought we'd be praying for snow and ice-cold temperatures.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Dzuba, best of luck to you. Thanks for talking with us.

DZUBA: Well, thank you so much.

BLOCK: Russell Dzuba is the harbormaster in Leland, Michigan, right on Lake Michigan.

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