Celebrating 75 years of launching nautical adventures


MICHIGAN — Boating has been a human activity for at least 8,000 years, with the waters inspiring us to adventure, providing food and helping build cities and economies. These motivations for going in the water have persisted and are still relevant today.

In 2022, Michigan celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Waterways Program, a modern concept signifying the access and infrastructure necessary for boating: boat launches, marinas, gas docks, locks and dams , and maintenance to keep these destinations accessible and operational.

The Michigan State Waterways Commission, a seven-member advisory board appointed by the governor, was established in 1947 to advise on how Michigan would locate, fund, and manage ports to provide safe and secure navigation. navigable on Michigan’s Great Lakes. The program has evolved significantly since its inception and today looks to the future of boating to ensure our state continues to be a world-class freshwater boating destination.

“Michigan is blessed with a fantastic diversity of aquatic recreation, and our waterways program is essential to making the most of these opportunities and improving the quality of life for communities across the state,” said Ron Olson, head of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division. “Nearly 90 percent of boats registered in Michigan are under 25 feet in length, and many of those boaters rely on safe and accessible entry points to get in the water.”

Olson credited the Michigan Waterways Program for acquiring and developing nearly 1,300 public boating access sites. Through the Ports of Refuge program, local and state ports are also available nearly every 30 miles around the Great Lakes shoreline.

“The Michigan State Waterways Commission is advising the DNR, Division of Parks and Recreation, and Waterways Program to ensure boaters are part of the conversation and their voices are heard,” a said Olson. “Thank you to the many volunteer commissioners who have served our enviable waterways program for the past 75 years and built a strong legacy for the future of Michigan boating.”

Origin, evolution of river management

Established by the Michigan Legislature in 1947, the commission was created to take advantage of federal funds made available by the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1945, which funded U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects on navigable waters from the country. Congress then approved Michigan’s plan to create a safe haven network on the state’s Great Lakes shoreline. It also funded:

  • Breakwater protection structures still in use.
  • Dredging of the harbor basin and channel to establish many of the harbors we know today.
  • Routine maintenance dredging responsibilities for which the State, in turn, would provide mooring and boat ramp facilities.

This plan formed the basis of the state port program.

By 1949, the state had initiated additional efforts to expand the network of ports of refuge by collaborating with local government units (counties, townships, and cities) on the construction, maintenance, and operation of these facilities. This started what is known today as the Grant-in-Aid program, establishing federal, state, and local partnerships in the development of Great Lakes port facilities. Today, there are 82 state-sponsored ports.

In 1968, the functions of the commission were transferred to the Department of Natural Resources and added responsibility for selecting and creating boating access sites (commonly known as boat launches) on the many Michigan’s inland lakes as well.

With this expansion of the program, funding to meet the needs of Michigan boaters became a priority, resulting in Michigan becoming the first state in the nation to establish a state marine fuel tax. This levied a portion of the state tax on the sale of gasoline for a fund that helps provide boaters with better and wider access to Michigan waters. Michigan was the first state in the nation to create such a fund, creating a boating model now used by many other states.

Today, Michigan is home to more than 800,000 registered boaters, with the industry contributing $7.8 billion annually to Michigan’s economy. At 3,288 miles, Michigan’s Great Lakes coastline is longer than the Atlantic coast, and our state is home to some 11,000 inland lakes.

boating in michigan

Celebrate the waterways your way

Everyone is invited to help mark this Michigan maritime moment. To visit Michigan.gov/DNR/CelebrateBoating to learn ways to celebrate, including:

  • Registration for the texts of “Water Wednesday”.
  • See aerial drone footage of select ports and marinas in Michigan.
  • Sharing your photos.
  • Learn about the upcoming Waterways Adventure Lab and Paint the Waterways programs.
  • Learn more about new sustainable navigation efforts.
  • Download free coloring pages.
  • Find 75th Anniversary merchandise.

Help shape the future of waterways

Boaters and others interested in having their voices heard are encouraged to learn more about the Waterways Commission, including reviewing minutes of past meetings and schedules of upcoming meetings. These public meetings are a great forum to share ideas and ask questions about boating access, infrastructure and sustainability.

More information about boating in Michigan, celebration details, and commission information can be found at Michigan.gov/Boating.


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