LANSING (WWJ/AP) – Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation earlier this week creating a $21 million program to deepen Michigan harbors that could become impassable to boats as parts of the Great Lakes hover near historically low levels.

The money will pay to dredge 58 public harbors and river segments that draw tourists and provide refuges during sudden, fierce storms. With large commercial harbors claiming most of the federal funds available for dredging, state legislators put together an emergency package to benefit Michigan’s smaller shoreline communities and recreational marinas.

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“As the Great Lakes State, we need to ensure the availability of our beautiful waterways to boaters,” Snyder said during a signing ceremony in his office.

Marinas, charter boat operators and other tourism-related businesses joined local government officials in pleading for help from the state. The spending bill cleared the House and Senate this month with little opposition.

The lakes have declined since the late 1990s, a trend that accelerated last year as drought gripped the region. In January, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron hit their lowest ebb since record keeping began in 1918. Both were more than 2 feet below their long-term average.

Sen. Darwin Booher, a Republican from Evart who sponsored the measure, said he realized how serious the problem had become during a visit to the Portage Lake channel, which links the village of Onekama to Lake Michigan.

“The channel is filling with sand,” he said. “The community has estimated that the total business and property loss to that community would be more than $18 million.”

Most harbors that will be dredged are on Lakes Michigan and Huron. Seven are in Lake Superior and one is in Lake Erie.

Work can begin as soon as weather allows, and most projects should be finished in time for boating season, said Ron Olson, parks and recreation chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. A survey turned up about 120 dredging companies in the region and many communities have already taken bids, he said.

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The northeast Michigan town of Alpena will receive $805,000 for its small boat harbor on Lake Huron, where depths at the municipal marina have slumped below 5 feet. Many sailboats could scrape bottom with the water so shallow. Also endangered is a glass-bottomed vessel that provides tours of shipwrecks in nearby Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said Greg Sundin, interim city manager. Additionally, a private marina near the town recently went out of business.

“It’s very critical for us to get that depth back,” Sundin said.

Legislators appropriated $11.5 million from the general fund – state government’s main checkbook – and pulled $9.5 million from a fund overseen by the Michigan State Waterways Commission that usually pays for breakwalls, dock repairs and other marine infrastructure upgrades. Some of those projects have been delayed because of the transfer, and state officials don’t see the waterway fund as a long-term solution to the dredging problem.

“The goal here is not to be doing dredging every year from the state perspective,” Snyder said.

Olson said a more secure source is needed – preferably the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which gives top priority to large and medium-sized ports that accommodate cargo ships. Officials in Michigan and other coastal states are lobbying Congress to spend more on dredging from a harbor maintenance fund generated by a freight tax.

A highway funding package Snyder is pushing would allocate roughly $9 million that might be used to establish a continuous dredging fund, Olson said. But the governor’s plan is drawing stiff resistance in the Legislature.

Snyder also signed several other dredging-related bills. One would cut the environmental permit fee – which can reach $2,000 – to $50 for projects involving at least 10,000 cubic yards of sediment that is at least 90 percent sand. Officials said sand tends to be less contaminated than other soils.

Other bills allow the Department of Environmental Quality to expedite permit applications and provide low-interest loans for dredging private marinas.

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