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.’’