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Leland dredges up hope for nearly closed-off harbor

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Leland — The long wait is over for Leland Harbormaster Russell Dzuba.

For two years, sand has been building up at the mouth of the Fishtown harbor, making it difficult for boats to enter this picturesque Lake Michigan town that’s popular with anglers and summer tourists.

A storm last fall that stirred up huge amounts of sand was the final blow, effectively closing off the harbor.

But last week — thanks to a community fundraising effort to buy needed equipment — dredging began to remove 12,000 cubic yards of sand from the harbor.

The relief comes not a moment too soon, Dzuba said.

Joe MacRannolds moves a 68-foot dredge to the Leland Harbor on April 8. The 56,000-pound dredge will remove thousands of cubic yards of sand from the harbor entrance, which has been virtually closed since last fall.

“Usually there is a depth of 14 feet at the mouth,” Dzuba said. “There is now probably less than three feet of water in a very small part of the mouth.”

Jim Munoz, operator of the Manitou Island Transit, which carries visitors, National Park Service personnel and supplies from Leland to the Manitou Islands, is among the volunteers who worked for months on the purchase of a dredge.

“It’s pretty monumental what we’ve accomplished,” Munoz said. “We’ve been concerned for years about dredging; that’s all over now.

“Not 1 cent of taxpayer money is in this project; the harbor is self-sustaining. We’re not competing with private enterprise here. We’re pretty proud of the people in Leland and the region for stepping up.”

Munoz said the harbor offers 61 slips, a new bathhouse facility, Wi-Fi and a fuel dock. It’s located at the mouth of the Carp River and historic Fishtown.

The harbor entrance was last dredged in 2014 at a cost of $177,000 with state and local government funding, but that money has become much harder to secure, Leland officials say.

As the need for more dredging got dire, local officials and community members began exploring permanent ways to solve the problem.

Leland Township Harbor Commission member Geoff Niessink said it was obvious something had to be done to ensure the harbor could remain open to all watercraft.

“We knew we had a big problem,” Niessink said as he watched a slurry of sand shoot into Lake Michigan from the dredge on Wednesday, the first day serious dredging began.

“We had no control over funding, and no expectation of assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers or the State of Michigan. By August of last year, we seriously began looking at alternatives.”

The group reached out to the Louisiana-based DSC Dredge company, which has a facility in Greenbush on Lake Huron, to explore what it would cost to buy its own dredging equipment.

The harbor commission had $300,00 in a contingency fund, but another $250,000 was needed to complete the purchase.

Organizing began last October. Kate Vilter was named chairwoman for the fund-raising effort, which began in late November. She settled on an online site called Fundly, and the call for donations began the first week of January. The goal was reached by Feb. 1.

As of April 12, the total had amounted to $285,000.

“People really care about this community,” Vilter said. “This is a small town, but we’ve had 368 donors so far. Some people with deep pockets came forward. We really didn’t think it would happen this quickly. Social media was huge for getting the word out.”

Dzuba estimates there is 12,000 cubic yards of sand in the harbor entrance, and he hopes to have it all removed by May 15 when the harbor officially opens.

The dredge, 56,000 pounds heavy and 68 feet long, has no propulsion. Powered by a 440-horsepower diesel engine, the dredge’s pump can move an average of 150 yards of sand a day, pumping it 2,500 feet through a foot-wide pipe to the south of the harbor, where Lake Michigan beach erosion will be filled in with the sand.

“We were surprised today when we first began pumping,” Niessink said. “Due to the fine sand and the high water content, we estimate we are pumping 250 cubic yards of sand per hour.”

Six operators are being trained to run the machine. Training began this past week with classroom and onboard lessons by two DSC Dredge officials over a five-day period. A work boat will be used to move the non-motorized dredge and deliver fuel and workers to the dredge.

“We have 50-60 businesses that depend on the harbor for sales and customers,” Munoz said. “ If the harbor had to close due to the plugged entrance, we’d be down to a market, the post office, and the Bluebird restaurant.”

Reservations have been coming in for boat slips since this past winter for summer visitors.

Dzuba also pointed out the importance of the harbor for refuge from storms and high seas: “There’s 80 miles between Frankfort and Charlevoix. The safety of boaters is important.”

Dredging will continue until the harbor mouth is clear, and any future dredging can be done whenever needed with the new machine.

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.