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Helping Marinas and Harbors Stand the Test of Time

Helping Marinas and Harbors Stand the Test of Time

Michigan Sea Grant assists marinas and harbors with climate adaptation


By Amy Samples, Michigan Sea Grant

Much of Michigan’s coastal infrastructure—including marinas, boat launches and shore protection—was built during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. A lot has changed in the years since. Water levels have fluctuated. Winters are shorter. Temperatures are warmer. Storms have become more intense. 

Marinas and harbors, like other waterfront businesses, are vulnerable to climate change impacts but are particularly susceptible to impacts that affect infrastructure, navigability, and public perception of aesthetics. If a marina looks unsafe or unappealing, patrons will go elsewhere. These realities, paired with changing policy and budget issues, challenge marina and harbor operators. For most operators finding additional money to guard against a potential future mishap is often difficult. Operators may ask: What low-cost methods should I implement now? How should I prepare for the future? 

Fluctuating water levels – both high and low – pose operational issues for many marinas and harbors. For example, low water levels paired with fixed docks pose access, safety, and aesthetic issues. Image: Michigan Sea Grant.

With funding from the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessment Center (GLISA), Michigan Sea Grant led a team that will help answer some of those questions. 

Michigan is home to more than 800 public and privately operated marinas and harbor facilities. In 2007, the Great Lakes Commission reported that Great Lakes boating contributed nearly $2.4 billion to the Michigan economy. Boating in the Great Lakes is big business and a prized cultural resource. 

But many private marinas and small municipal harbors are struggling to fund needed improvements. Aging infrastructure, fluctuating lake levels, and increased storm damage only amplify this economic hardship. The Sea Grant team first identified that marina and harbor managers and local decision makers were in need of planning guidance for maintenance, repair, dredging, and general management given the uncertainties of climate change. 

An informal poll of marina and harbor operators in Michigan indicated top environmental changes perceived to influence waterfront operations, including lake level changes, structural repairs following storms, increased dredging and maintenance, and changes in operational scheduling to reflect changes in seasonal weather patterns. The project team then assisted marina and harbor operators in problem identification, decision-making, and planning related to climate change adaptation. 

Active engagement with stakeholders was an important component of the project. Marina and harbor operators and local decision makers who help guide management of waterfront facilities were asked to share their best management practices for addressing changing conditions. Additionally, planning experts provided insight on marina and harbor-related policy, zoning, and coding options. 

Empowering our state’s marinas and harbors to increase resilience to a variable future is the surest path to ensuring they will stand the test of time.

Michigan Sea Grant has more information on this project, including best practices tip sheets, a project summary and webinar recordings.

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