SOUTH HAVEN — Near record high water levels on Lake Michigan and the Black River are causing more problems for not only boaters, but for maritime-related services offered by the city.
“High water levels, that’s the new normal,” City Manager Brian Dissette remarked.
City officials had hoped to begin an electrical upgrade project at Southside Municipal Marina this spring, but were forced to postpone it due to the dangers workers would face in installing the underwater upgrades.
“The water is too high on the docks around the marina,” Dissette said. “We’ve had the power off for three weeks. Some boaters are still using the marina. Some have their own batteries or generators for power. We’re giving boaters discounts if they want to use the marina. Will this hurt business? Absolutely.”
Up-river from the Southside Marina awaits another high-water related issue for the city and for the many boaters that travel along the Black River and South Haven harbor.
The Dyckman Drawbridge opens every half hour during the peak tourism season to let boats with masts travel from one side of the river to the other.
But with the high water level creeping up the walls of the bridge, smaller boats will soon be waiting in line for the bridge to open – possibly creating more delays for motorists waiting for the bridge to lower.
“If you’ve got an antenna or a top on your boat you might not be able to go under the bridge,” Dissette said.
Bridgetender Pete Bergen, who was in charge of operating the bridge gets a close-up view of the issue.
“Lower-profile boats that made it under the bridge last year, aren’t going to make it this year,” he said.
Right now boaters have a clearance of about 7 feet due to the high water levels, according to Streets Department Director Ron Dotson.
“We started in April with a 9-foot clearance,” he said. “Now we’re at 7.25 feet.”
With close to 1,100 boat slips on the Black River, weekend traffic on the waterway and on the roadway above the river can get bottled up regularly during the summer months. The high water level is expected to cause even more congestion, particularly during the city’s annual Fourth of July holiday fireworks display.
Dissette said he doesn’t know how long delays might be for motorists when the bridge goes up at its intervals each half-hour, but he urged motorists to have patience.
Boaters on the Black River have to know what time the bridge opens and adjust their schedule accordingly. But boaters can’t stop their craft on a dime.
“Boats don’t have brakes,” Dissette said. “That’s why they have the right-of-way” (when it comes to bridge traffic).
The third high-water related issue facing both the municipal marinas and private ones is the increased threat of electric shock drowning, or ESD.
ESD can occur from stray electrical current primarily near marinas and docks. The stray currents originate from the wiring of the dock or marina, or from boats connected to the dock’s power supply, according to the ESD Prevention Association, which warns people not to jump or swim in water near docks and marinas.
Because of the high water level, electrical service lines leading from boats to a dock’s electrical service outlets can very easily end up being submerged.
“Some marinas’ electric lines are run under the docks and the water levels are now approaching those connections,” explained Steve Schlack, owner of 1st Choice Marine in South Haven.
Schlack said he has urged several home associations that have private docks to turn off their electricity until water levels go down.
“In the late ’80s the water level was slightly higher and people tell me stories of down by the River Bend Boat Club there was a few inches of water over their yard and fish were seen passing through the yard. We are within an inch or two of that level now when we have an up cycle.”
Staying out of the river is the smartest thing people can do. Besides, there is a city ordinance against people swimming in the river.
“If you go in a boat or go near the river, it’s so important to stay out of the water,” Dissette said. “The potential of stray voltage in the water is there. It’s like being Tased.”
Worse, people can drown from ESD, which can cause skeletal muscular paralysis, preventing the victim from be able to help themselves out of the water.
Saturday’s scheduled Harborfest dragon boat races will still continue because the Southshore Marina, where the race are staged, won’t be running any electricity.
The city owns three marinas on the Black River and is taking steps to develop a plan to address ESD-related issues at their marinas. City officials are also encouraging private marina operators to do so as well.