"You're talking about schools, 911 emergency, library, fire protection — everything," he said.
Many places around the Great Lakes are having similar problems. At least a dozen boats have run aground this year in Lake Ontario around the harbor in Orleans County, N.Y. The state of Wisconsin warned boaters to watch for stumps, boulders and other hazards lurking just beneath the water. Boat-towing services have done brisk business rescuing stranded craft in newly shallow stretches of Lake Erie.
What makes the situation particularly frustrating for small Great Lakes communities is that a fund for dredging and other harbor maintenance already exists. It's generated by a tax on freight shipped at U.S. ports and raises about $1.5 billion a year. But about half of the money is diverted to the treasury for other uses. Members of Congress from coastal states are pushing to change that policy.
Even if the effort succeeds, there's no guarantee that communities like Onekama will get a share of the cash. The Corps of Engineers gives top priority to large ports such as Duluth, Minn., Detroit and Cleveland. Whatever is left goes to medium-sized harbors that also accommodate cargo ships. The region's 112 small harbors, including 71 with only recreational traffic, have relied on budget earmarks since the 1990s.
"Many of these towns wouldn't exist if it wasn't for their ports," said Mike O'Bryan, chief of engineering and technical services for the Detroit district office.
The Great Lakes Small Harbors Coalition, led by Onekama retiree Chuck May, says $20 million a year would cover all those areas' dredging and maintenance costs, and rescue tourist communities that pump billions into the economy.
Farther up the coast near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the village of Leland scraped together more than $100,000 from a local Indian tribe, businesses and government agencies this year to dredge a 13-foot-deep channel enabling charter fishing boats and pleasure craft to reach Lake Michigan. Harbormaster Russell Dzuba is already fundraising to dredge in 2013 but says that's no long-term solution.
"We have a moral obligation to keep this place open," he said. "We're the only safe harbor for a 75-mile stretch and Lake Michigan is a tempestuous beast. But the feds have cut us adrift."