Man charged with dredging Michigan river: How and why would someone do it? What we know

Platte River originates in Long Lake in Traverse City

Platte River. (WPBN) (WPBN)

A Michigan man is facing federal charges for allegedly dredging a river inside a federal park along Lake Michigan.

The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, Mark Totten, announced charges against Andrew Blair Howard, 62, of Frankfort, Michigan. Federal officials say Howard dredged the Platte River inside Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Howard is charged with one count of tampering and one count of vandalism at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on August 15, 2022. These charges carry a maximum penalty of up to 6 months’ imprisonment, up to a $ 5,000 fine, up to 5 years’ probation, and mandatory restitution.

---> Feds charge Michigan man for dredging river inside Sleeping Bear Dunes

There are several questions surrounding this story -- we saw some good ones in the comments of our original report. Here’s what we can answer:

What’s the deal with the Platte River?

The Platte River originates in Long Lake in Traverse City, and flows through Platte Bay, a small bay of Lake Michigan.

The dredging (or lack thereof) of the Platte River has been a hot topic in Northern Michigan since officials announced the river would no longer be dredged back in 2017, a decision made by the National Parks Service.

“By not dredging the mouth of the Platte. It lets nature be nature, so it allows the mouth of the Platte to meander as it has historically for thousands of years, and it allows the natural resources to be on their own terms, in a sense,” Scott Tucker, Superintendent for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, told 9&10 News.

Lake Township Supervisor Anna Grobe sent letters of concern to state and national lawmakers about the NPS decision.

“If there was an incident, whether it be a canoe, a kayak, a child on a float or fisherman and if the emergency vessel would have needed to get out. They would not have been able to get out of the mouth of the Platte River. They would have had to come from Frankfort,” explained Grobe, adding that there had been two deaths in the water in the area over the last few years. “Time is of the essence, and my concern was that it would have been a recovery, not a rescue,” said Grobe.

Why would someone dredge it?

We don’t know specifically why Howard allegedly did it -- federal investigators have not released their findings outside of the charges. We don’t even know how he pulled it off, or to what level. But when the change of flow was noticed in April, it launched a major investigation.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Scott Tucker said it was upsetting and had unintended ecological consequences. He said the increased discharge has dropped the level of the Platte River by a foot, draining untold amounts of water from the wetlands upstream, and depositing debris and sand into the lake. He also said whoever did it may have been looking to improve boat access to a nearby launch.

What is dredging?

Dredging (verb) means “the process of removing accumulated sediment from the bottom or banks of bodies of water, including rivers, lakes or streams,” according to GeoForm International. People have been dredging channels in one way or another since primitive people began to irrigate crops, according to USACE.

Dredges (noun) are specialized pieces of equipment that create a vacuum to suck up and pump out the unwanted sediment and debris.

“Sedimentation is a naturally occurring process where silt, sand and other debris accumulate on the bottom of rivers, lakes, canals or streams over time. An excessive build-up of sediment can cause a series of issues.”

According to NOAA, dredging often is focused on maintaining or increasing the depth of navigation channels, anchorages, or berthing areas to ensure the safe passage of boats and ships. Vessels require a certain amount of water in order to float and not touch bottom. This water depth continues to increase over time as larger and larger ships are deployed.

According to NOAA, dredging is also performed to reduce the exposure of fish, wildlife, and people to contaminants and to prevent the spread of contaminants to other areas of the water body. This environmental dredging is often necessary because sediments in and around cities and industrial areas are frequently contaminated with a variety of pollutants.

In Michigan, dredging action required permits, usually both state and federal permits.

How does someone dredge a river?

As it turns out, it’s incredibly complicated, and the more you read about this, the more shocked you’ll be that anyone could do this alone, or without being immediately caught.

It’s heavy duty equipment.

According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, there are three main types of dredges -- mechanical dredges, hydraulic dredges, and airlift dredges.

Hydraulic dredges work by sucking a mixture of dredged material and water from the channel bottom.

Hopper dredges are ships with large containment areas or “hoppers” inside. Fitted with powerful pumps, the dredges suck material from the channel bottom through long intake pipes called drag arms and store it in the hoppers.

A pipeline dredge sucks dredged material through one end, the “intake pipe,” and then pushes it out the “discharge pipeline” at the other end directly into the disposal site.

Mechanical dredges remove material by scooping it from the bottom and then placing it onto a waiting barge or into a disposal area. Dipper dredges and clamshell dredges, named for the scooping buckets they employ, are the two most common types.

(Read more here from US Army Corps of Engineers)

Dredging process (GeoForm International)

About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.