Detroit Harbor Dredging Kicked Off on Washington Island

Thanks for the recognition of Washington Island’s ferry connection was the theme of a recent event that kicked off the $7.1 million Detroit Harbor dredging project.

“Without the ferry line there is no community, and without the community there is no ferry line,” said Town of Washington Chair and ferry captain Joel Gunnlaugsson, standing in front of the dredging site and addressing the residents, politicians, engineers and media in the audience.

The Detroit Harbor dredging project will deepen the channel by three feet to bring it to a total of 17 feet below the low water line, widen the channel by 20 feet and remove 134,500 cubic yards of sediment. The harbor hasn’t been dredged since 1939.

Photo by Len Villano.

It’s a project vital to the Washington Island Ferry Line, which last winter was forced to use the Potato Dock instead of Detroit Harbor due to low water. The community depends on the ferry for transportation on and off Washington Island, to import supplies and to bring the tourists that boost the economy. It’s vital the big boats can get between the Door Peninsula and Washington Island.

Funding for the project wasn’t easy to get. The state awarded $5.2 million to the project, even though it should be maintained by the federal government, because federal funding wasn’t available soon enough.

“It’s nice to see the ferry line, state and town working to keep the connection between the mainland and the island,” said Sarah Gibson, of Gibson’s West Harbor Resort.

Gibson grew up on Washington Island and said it’s scary to imagine what would happen if the ferry line couldn’t operate.

“I don’t want to think about that,” she said. “It’s hard to even fathom not being able to get off the island. People would have to leave, we wouldn’t be able to survive year-round without supplies.”

Joel Gunnlaugsson, Town of Washington chair and ferry captain, addressed the crowd to describe the relationship between Washington Island and the ferry. Photo by Len Villano.

Initial work began in mid-September with crews investigating parts of the channel to see what kind of sediments they’d be pulling up. They’ve already had to bring in an excavator – a tool similar to a big backhoe – to dig up the big sediments that couldn’t be dug with a clamshell bucket – a smaller, two-hinged bucket tool.

Ken Potrykus is environmental program manager at Foth Engineering, the firm in charge of the project. He said they want to be done dredging by the end of this year, but won’t know the final project timeline until the end of October. Work may have to be done early next year, too.

“It’s harder digging than we hoped for,” Potrykus said. “We would have hoped it was easier, but our schedule won’t change.”

While work is done in the harbor, Foth construction manager Ken Aukerman is living on the island to be a liaison between the company and Washington Island residents. He submits weekly project reports to Foth, meets regularly with Gunnlaugsson and is available to answer residents’ questions.

“It was an important role for us to have a construction manager to ensure the schedule and work was put into action effectively,” Aukerman said. “When you’re living here people get an understanding of how things are going.”