Can a petition strike a balance between wake boats and other lake users?

The petition does not seek a ban on wake boats. “If adopted, the proposed rule would balance the enjoyment of the ... sport with the need to limit these activities to appropriate water bodies...."

Can a petition strike a balance between wake boats and other lake users?

On March 9th the citizens’ group Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes (RWVL), which includes several Thetford residents, presented a petition to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR). The petition requested that ANR modify the Use of Public Waters Rule to manage the use of wake boats on lakes and ponds in Vermont. Letters of support were provided by the Lake Fairlee Association, the Thetford Selectboard, the Conservation Commissions of Thetford, West Fairlee, Hinesburg and Morristown, the Aloha Foundation, and over 20 organizations, including the Connecticut River Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, The Vermont Center for Ecostudies, Vermont Sierra Club, Vermont Natural Resources Council, and other Vermont lake associations.

For those not familiar with wake boats, they are high-powered motor boats designed or equipped to keep the stern low in the water, often with deep V-shaped hulls, to plow the maximal amount of water into large and powerful waves. To ensure a low stern, the boats carry water-filled ballast tanks that can add between 2000 and 6000 lbs, a weight equivalent to a sedan automobile. The object is to provide artificial waves for surfing without going to the ocean. This recently popularized sport is enthusiastically promoted by the motor boat industry and is the fastest growing segment among powerboat sales. The sport has become commonplace in the south and western US. Lakes of those regions have experienced many negative impacts of wake boats. Similar impacts are now being felt in Vermont.

Caption: examples of wake boats and the weights of ballast carried to promote wave formation`

The petition is an impressive and lengthy document — fifty-four pages, including five pages of supporting references. Letters of support add another forty pages. The petition documents the repercussions of wake boat use on the other users of Vermont lakes and on lake ecology.

All these impacts are the result of both the height and, more importantly, the power and turbulence of wake boat waves. Waves with enough force to propel an adult on a surfboard (aka wakesurf board) for as long as they wish are also strong enough to do the following:

  • Wash ashore and endanger the young or elderly who happen to be close to the water.
  • Swamp small watercraft and endanger swimmers, paddle boarders, kayakers, and people canoeing and fishing, and create an environment where people feel those activities are unsafe.
  • Cause the violent and dangerous tilting of docks and moored boats. Anchored boats have even been ripped from their moorings.
Caption: Swimming platform tilted by wake boat passing 800 ft from shore on Lake Raponda, VT`
  • Stir up lake bottom sediments due to both wave power and turbulence, with resultant phosphate release that degrades water clarity, promotes algae, and encourages toxic cyanobacteria. Unlike other motor boats, wake boat propellers are angled downward, directing a powerful stream of water at the lake bottom.
  • Reduce lakeshore property values. A study by the University of Vermont showed that every meter of reduced water clarity resulted in a 3% drop in value of year-round lakeshore residences. In Georgia,VT, losses of $50,000 in value per individual property were attributed to recurrent algal blooms. Invasive water weed (Eurasian milfoil) has caused similar devaluations. This results in redistribution of the municipal tax burden to non-lake properties.
  • Erode lakeshores. Wake boat waves are stronger than natural wind-blown waves. and they are turbulent. It’s not hard to understand that turbulent waves repeatedly slapping into soil banks beside lakes will dislodge soil and undercut the roots of trees beside the water. Naturally vegetated borders and shoreline plantings are similarly damaged. While the shores of large lakes are hardened to a degree by windblown wave action, on smaller lakes they are soft and fragile. Erosion of lakeshores is an additional source of phosphates that encourage algal blooms.
  • Damage the nearshore lake ecosystem. The nearshore ecosystem is made of submerged and semi-submerged native plants (also called emergent plants) in shallow water that comprise a refuge and feeding zone for fish, insects, amphibians, etc. that are vital to the lake food chain. Strong waves break down the vegetation and disrupt the feeding and sheltering of the species within.
  • Imperil shore-nesting loons and other birds. Loons have recently been removed from the list of endangered species in Vermont after many years of concerted efforts by numerous volunteers. Loon nests are typically at the edge of the shoreline, only inches above the water, in sheltered coves that normally do not experience natural waves. However, wake boats can enter those areas, and their strong waves may drive the adults off the nest and wash eggs into the water. Repeated disturbance will cause adults to abandon the nest altogether.
Caption: Nesting loon showing typical nest location; Lake Dunmore VT`

The petition’s appendix provides some first-hand experiences illustrating wake boat dangers. Here’s one such instance: “In 2020 my then four-year-old grandson was playing in the water next to our dock on Lake Iroquois. A large wave from a wake boat washed him under the dock. As he was wearing a life jacket he was caught between the water and the underside of the dock. One of his cousins pulled him out before other waves arrived so he was not hurt, but easily could have been. This event reinforced my concern over the generation of such large wakes on small lakes. William C. Wright,  Shelburne, VT.”

Scientific studies demonstrate that the energy of a wake boat wave dissipates only after the wave has traveled a distance approaching 1000 ft. Waters need to be more than 20 feet in depth before a wake boat’s downward-angled turbulence does not stir up the lake bed appreciably. Therefore the petition requests that wake boats operate at a distance of 1000 ft offshore, in waters greater than 20 ft in depth.  It does not seek a ban on wake boats in Vermont. It only asks that these boats be restricted to lakes that offer areas of an appropriate width and depth that can accommodate their strong waves without endangering fragile lake shores and ecosystems.

Because wake boats require a certain distance in which to operate enjoyably, the petition proposes that wake boats may operate on lakes that offer a minimum of 60 acres of water that fulfill the above criteria. Larger lakes may provide considerably larger wake sport zones. The minimum Wake Board Zone would permit wake boats to travel at the desired speed for enough time to allow a reasonable ride. Keeping wake boats within this zone would have the effect of leaving room for other recreational lake uses.

Another problem with wake boats is the transport of invasive aquatic species from one lake to another. Water is pumped into a wake boat’s ballast tanks upon entering a lake. At the end of the day water is pumped out in preparation for transport, but the tanks cannot be fully emptied. Larvae of invasive species like zebra mussels or fragments of invasive water plants like milfoil may be present in the residual water and transported to another lake. The enclosed design of ballast tanks does not allow for visual inspection of their interiors.

Approaching this issue from a legislative angle, the petition goes on to refer to the rules set by the state of Vermont that govern the uses of lakes and aquatic resources. Vermont law states “A person shall not transport an aquatic plant, aquatic plant part, or aquatic nuisance species to or from any Vermont water.” In fact the threat of transporting invasive species posed by wake boats is acknowledged by boat manufacturers and the Boat Owners Association, among others. The petitioners ask the DEC to consider this important law as they review the petition. On average, $2 million is spent annually across Vermont on controlling aquatic invasive species to mitigate impacts on local economies due to their negative effects on recreation such as fishing, swimming, boating, water skiing, etc. Zebra mussels, for example, form colonies on hard surfaces in shallow waters. Their razor-sharp edges cut skin, most commonly on peoples’ feet. Milfoil grows rampantly, clogging near-shore water to the detriment of swimmers, waders, paddle boarders, kayakers, and fishermen.  The petition calls for state measures to stop the spread of invasive species between lakes that allow wake boat zones, such as providing effective boat decontamination stations and the funding of lake “Greeter Programs” to question boat owners and inspect boats before they enter a lake.

It also appears from the petition that the waves from wake boats run contrary to the 2014 Shoreland Protection Act, the purpose of which is to prevent water quality degradation in lakes, preserve habitat and natural stability of shorelines, and maintain the economic benefits of Vermont lakes and their shorelands.

Regarding conflicts between wake boats and other lake users, the Vermont Use of Public Water Rules  state that “The public waters shall be managed so that the various uses may be enjoyed in a reasonable manner, considering safety and the best interests of both current and future generations of citizens of the State and the need to provide an appropriate mix of water-based recreational opportunities on a regional and statewide basis.

“In evaluating normal recreational and other uses, the following uses shall be among those considered: fishing, swimming, boating, waterskiing, fish and wildlife habitat, wildlife observation, the enjoyment of aesthetic values, quiet solitude of the water body, and other water- based activities.”  Wake boats and their powerful waves are not compatible with fishing, swimming and small craft operation, and they disturb and disrupt wildlife habitat and quiet solitude.

Still addressing conflicts of lake use, the Public Water Rules go on to say “Use conflicts shall be managed in a manner that provides for all normal uses to the greatest extent possible consistent with the provisions of § 2.2 of these Rules.” In the Rules,normal use” means any lawful use of any specific body of public water that occurred on a regular, frequent, and consistent basis prior to January 1, 1993.

The petition argues that wake boats did not become popular until around 2000, well after 1993. Even now, they are not widespread in Vermont. There is precedent in regulating another type of novel (at the time) watercraft, the jet ski or personal watercraft. When jet skis became popular in Vermont, the Water Resources Board (whose rulemaking authority was later transferred to the ANR) developed rules to prohibit jet skis on lakes less than 300 acres in size.

This is just the start of what promises to be a lengthy process that will likely take over a year. There will be public hearings and deliberations and, no doubt, strenuous opposition from the motor boat industry and their lobbyists, as has happened in other states. The petition does not seek a ban on wake boats. To quote the RWVL's press release, “If adopted, the proposed rule would balance the enjoyment of wake boats and wake sports with the need to limit these activities to water bodies appropriate for wake-enhanced sports. The rule would not apply to the use of conventional boats used for wakeboarding, tubing, or waterskiing.” The proposed rule would also not apply to Lake Champlain because it is partly in New York state, or to Lake Memphremagog that is partly in Canada.

A lake is a resource that is available to all. However, there is a danger that overuse and abuse of communal resources will result in degradation, both of the users’ experience and the resource itself, and, in the case of a lake, ecological collapse. Regulating use, as proposed in the petition, paves the way to cooperation so that a wide variety of users can continue to enjoy and, hopefully, respect the resources offered by lakes.

Photos and graphics courtesy of Jack Widness; Photo of nesting loon on Lake Dunmore by Josh Cummings

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