By Jennifer McKay, Policy Specialist, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council
The Great Lakes have been shaped by recreational boaters and the shipping industry. It's time to learn what those impacts mean to the people of the region.
Great Lakes water levels are on the rise. The Army Corps of Engineers reports the level of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron is 13 inches higher than a year ago. Two snowy winters have helped replenish the lakes after the level dropped two years ago to within three inches of the record low set in 1964. The level now is only about eight inches below the long-term average, and it should continue to rise three to four inches. Lake Superior is also showing a rise in the water level, up five inches from a year ago. This is welcome news for boaters who have felt the effects of years of low water levels.
Compounding the effect of low water levels for boaters was even lower funding levels for small recreational harbors. While the Great Lakes can offer exquisite boating opportunities, small harbor maintenance issues are a persistent problem. It has been a problem due to the way the federal government has prioritized projects. The Great Lakes navigation system is comprised of coastal infrastructure navigation harbors, channels, locks and dams. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is provided with federal funding to maintain these systems, but the funding provided is never enough. Funding historically has been focused on carving channels and harbors for commercial navigation. Even more so with current budget constraints, commercial harbors are prioritized and exceed the available funding. That leaves recreational harbors rarely maintained or improved.
But, the debate over how the federal government invests in Great Lakes navigation could be dramatically different if there was conclusive, precise data available that could help the government better prioritize projects. A reliable study with pertinent information regarding the costs and benefits associated with both recreational boating and commercial navigation could provide the means to determine the most appropriate allocation of federal dollars for Great Lakes navigation projects given limited funding.
This was supposed to be accomplished already. In 1999, Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a study that would provide information on how valuable recreational boating is to the Great Lakes economy. Nine years and two reports later, all we have is a discrepancy of numbers.
In 2007, the Great Lakes Commission released a report that revealed 4.3 million recreational vessels in the eight Great Lakes states drive almost $16 billion in yearly spending on boats and related activities. With secondary effects taken into consideration, those numbers grow to $19 billion in sales, $6.4 billion in personal income and $9.2 billion in value added.
Using the same data, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their own report in December of 2008 concluding the economic impact of registered recreational boaters that use the Great Lakes is approximately $5.1 billion in sales, $1.8 billion in personal income and $2.4 billion in value added, totaling $9.4 billion. Again, this is the same data, yet it produced conclusions that differed by more than $6 billion.
Meanwhile, there was a study commissioned several years ago that showed that commercial navigation on the Great Lakes and seaway generates $3.4 billion in revenue a year in the United States. Add to this, the results of a recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that the Great Lakes commercial navigation system provides positive economic impact to the U.S. economy as a job provider with 44,000 jobs directly related to maritime transport. Additionally, 54,000 jobs in the mining industry and approximately 138,000 jobs in the steel industry are dependent on the Great Lakes navigation system. The Corps also concluded that shipping on the Great Lakes saves its customers more than $3.6 billion a year when compared to the next least costly mode of transportation.