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Will the Black River Canal be operating ‘forever’?

Posted on September 5, 2023

Early this summer, Thomas Sudia said he was taking his son and his friends out to go tubing on Lake Huron when they found the entrance from the Black River Canal blocked.

“I’m like, ‘Well, that stinks.’ We had the whole day planned to be on the boat,” the local resident recalled Thursday.

Later in the season, they planned to go again — only, this time, he’d learned to check Facebook ahead of time to see if anyone shared the canal’s status. The Tainter gate, which closes automatically based on wind direction and speed, was once again blocking recreational boat traffic, and Sudia, who lives nearby, said they decided to take his 17-foot boat up to Lexington instead.

“It had filled back in because of this north wind we’ve been getting. And I was like, ‘Well, forget that,’” he said. “… But (going to Lexington) involves a whole lot of packing up stuff, driving it up. That costs money, extra gas, all that kind of stuff. When it’s just super easy to literally drive down the street to the Riverside Boat Launch, and I’m in the water within 10, 15 minutes.”

Plenty of local boaters take the century-old Black River Canal out to the lake.

This year, however, others like Sudia may have faced similar headaches — unable to utilize the manmade waterway as often as they’d like.

Crews dredged the mouth of the canal last week for the fourth time this season ahead of the Labor Day weekend. And according to city officials, that’s more than usual.

“The canal dredgings have happened since day one, and so the dredging is going to continue on in the future,” said Eric Witter, the city’s public works director. “It’s really weather-dependent, and water elevation, too, plays a role. Because back in 2016 through like 2018, we dredged once. It’s really on what Mother Nature does that we have to respond to. But this fourth dredge, at least going back to 2012, the most we’ve ever done in a year is three and that was last year. We have not done four.”

The fourth dredge also comes following a new joint agreement between the city and Fort Gratiot and Port Huron Township to share the rising costs of the canal’s maintenance from the Black River north of Holland Avenue east to the Tainter gate and opening to the lake.

Officials for each community approved the agreement, which doubled the townships’ cap up to $15,000 annually, in early August. The combined $30,000 was aimed to cover 50%.

In the past, the city’s been permitted to dredge 9,000 cubic yards.

That, too, is on the rise.

“We had done three last year for a total of 9,704 cubic yards,” Witter said. “This year, our first dredge was 7,234. Our second one was 1,689, and our third dredge was 1,136 for a total of 10,059.”

That did not include the latest dredging.

But why is dredging so important?

Port Huron City Manager James Freed is among those residents who said keeping the canal entrance open to boaters is important for basic safety reasons.

“I’ve personally been in a storm that popped up out of nowhere, a squall, and there’s no way we could have made it on the St. Clair River,” he said. “So, we use the canal to get off that lake.”

Fellow resident Mark Watson, who helps man a “Port Huron Boaters” Facebook page and regularly shares canal information, said something similar, calling the river a little too “choppy” at times for smaller boats to get to the Black River downtown.

“Then, you don’t have the danger of going through the St. Clair River for any boat under 20 feet or pontoon boats. They can just scoot through the canal and go out there and use the link,” he said.

Still, they all admit the canal was never originally meant for boaters.

Port Huron electors voted to build the canal in January 1900 to “cleanse” the Black River, commencing a years-long construction effort, bidding wars, and the formation of a canal commission.

Most of the resulting 5,800-foot, more than a-mile-long waterway was reported to be bringing Lake Huron’s blue water in to un-muddy the Black River by May 1912.

At the time, one city official declared to the Times Herald that the canal would be “in operation forever.”

Watson referenced the remark from Superintendent Henry Ricker during an Aug. 14 City Council meeting. Its levity drew a few laughs — and a new sense of relevance as council members OK’d the dredging agreement.

“I think it’s appropriate to thank (the townships) for partnering with us. We appreciate their contribution since we have to keep it open forever,” Mayor Pro Tem Sherry Archibald told meeting attendees with a laugh last month.

Watson had referenced the mucky water during Boat Week during public comment, and Archibald said, “I, too, witnessed the storm that was coming through during Blue Water Fest and what was flowing, it was ugly. And the difference even just in the color of it, everything, (is noticeable) when the canal is open compared to when it’s not. I don’t have a boat, so there’s no conflict. It’s so much nicer. It’s been frustrating, I know, this year especially.

“And last year, the worst (is when) you turn around and it’s closed again. Some people are against doing it. But I think when you look at it and lay out all the reasons why we are dredging, why we’re keeping that open … it is a lot safer.”

Are there other options besides dredging?

On Wednesday, Watson said he tries to share a variety of history with other residents surrounding the canal.

That ranged, he said, from the cohort of recreational boaters who “even wanted a drawbridge over Gratiot” Avenue so the canal would “be a regular entryway” to those who also just want a cleaner Black River as originally intended.

“I have a boat downtown in the Acheson marina, and the one selfish reason I want the canal open is because then it makes downtown’s water not look like chocolate milk. Which it does look like all summer,” Watson said. “Last summer was a lot better. But this summer, it’s been brown and terrible looking.”

Witter said the bulk of comments they get about the canal are from boaters who want the Tainter gate open. But officials said they have had some concerns in the past from nearby property owners about erosion.

A canal armoring project this spring was largely aimed to help alleviate the latter and slow the erosion down.

Watson recalled how the landscape along the canal has changed over the years, adding, “it was like the Jungle Cruise” before trees and shrubbery were cleaned up along its banks, much of which is bordered by school or city cemetery property.

But it’s the canal entrance that gets most of the discord online.

Watson more recently shared a link to a 2016 study from two University of Wisconsin students who’d envisioned a small marina at the entrance, though he later said he understood that sand would collect on its northside and block the lake for nearby property owners.

Freed agreed it was far from likely.

“I’ve seen people who have this idea for jetties and harbors and marinas, and the expertise of the Army Corps of Engineers simply says you’ll dredge those as well,” the city manager said. “It’s based on where the canal is in the sand cycle of the Great Lakes. So, when they put the canal in here, this is what we would have dealt with. Although it was never meant to be a navigable waterway, it is, and a lot more people have recreational boats than they did 100 years ago.”


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