Setting limits on wake boats - an economic analysis

The rule-making process now moves on one more step — a public comment meeting.

Setting limits on wake boats - an economic analysis
Sailing, kayaking, and water-skiing currently coexist well on Lake Fairlee,

An upcoming meeting on February 15th is the next episode in the pushback against unlimited use of wake boats on some of Vermont’s lakes. After Lake Fairlee got a taste of some of the disruption that comes when wake boats appear, several Thetford residents joined the group Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes (RWVL), a coalition of statewide citizen's group concerned about the impact of wake boats on the smaller Vermont lakes.

For those unfamiliar with the term “wake boat,” these are motor boats designed specifically to throw up an extra large wake that has enough power to support a person riding behind on a surfboard, without the use of a tow rope. To provide for the sport of wake surfing, wake boats drive around on a lake making such waves, often for extended amounts of time. The powerful waves batter shorelines that are not normally subjected to such forces, while the down-directed propellors stir phosphate-laden sediment from the lake bottom into the water. The strong waves can rock waterside docks, swamp loon nests, and can endanger small children. They also make a lake less desirable for traditional users such as paddle craft, anglers, and swimmers due to the increased danger and the loss of water clarity caused by phosphate-fueled algal growth.

RWVL does not seek to ban wake boats. Rather they pressed for a new Use of Public Water Rule, which they petitioned the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to establish a new Use of Public Water Rule. Vermont’s Use of Public Waters Rules were developed to avoid and resolve conflicts between uses and to protect “normal or designated uses on all lakes, ponds, and reservoirs.” Vermont also has Water Quality Standards that include an Anti-Degradation Policy. “Existing uses of waters and the level of water quality necessary to protect existing uses shall be maintained and protected regardless of the water’s classification.” Existing uses have to take into account several factors, including aquatic biota, wildlife and their habitat, recreational fishing, and commercial activity that depends on an existing high level of water quality.

In addition to rules, Vermont has an Aquatic Invasive Species Transport Law, 10 V.S.A. §1454, that prohibits the transport of all aquatic plants or their parts or any aquatic nuisance species to or from any Vermont water.

RWVL asked the DEC to uphold these commitments by adding Public Water Rules that would still provide opportunities for wake sports but reduce the negative impacts. Their petition asks that the distance from shore for wake boat surfing be increased from the 200 ft required for operating any motorized boat to 1000 ft, the scientifically supported distance at which wake boat wave energy reaches minimal levels. They also request to limit wake sports to water depths greater than 20 ft to avoid the stirring up of phosphate. The third and final request is to allow wake sports only in areas of at least 60 contiguous acres of water that are both 1000 ft from shore and over 20 ft in depth. The petition was delivered on March 9, 2022.

In January 2023 the DEC released its Proposed Rule for wake sports. Some of their proposals falls short of what RWVL hoped. The DEC would allow wake sports within 500 ft of shore, rather than 1000 ft, and on 50 contiguous acres of water, somewhat less than the 60 acres requested. However, they added a positive provision under the Aquatic Invasive Species Transport Law. This is a “Home Lake Rule'' that restricts each wake boat to one lake only, its designated “Home Lake.” It prevents a wake boat from entering another Vermont waterbody unless it undergoes decontamination by a DEC-approved facility. Wake boats plow big wakes by riding low in the water, which is achieved by water-filled ballast tanks (some over 5,000 lbs of water) that are emptied into the lake at the end of the day. Because the ballast tanks cannot be completely drained, aquatic invasive species can be spread via ballast tanks. The decontamination requirement serves to prevent the spread. It has RWVL’s full support.

Regarding Lake Fairlee, wake boats would not be able to operate with enhanced wakes on Lake Fairlee if the minimum distance from shore was 1000 ft. However, they would be able to operate if the DEC's minimum of 500 ft from shore becomes the rule, because it would make more than 50 acres of water available.

Vermont’s rule-making process requires an economic impact analysis to accompany a proposed rule change. On February 2, 2023, RWVL sent an economic impact analysis to the DEC after it had been reviewed by several economists. The analysis demonstrates that although rule changes limiting wake boats would have a small negative impact on wake boat sales, the benefits to Vermont government, businesses, and citizens would have a far greater positive value.

Their analysis examines two scenarios, with and without wake boat regulation, ten years into the future. It shows that the economic benefits of regulation outweigh the costs by about ten to one. The annual benefits — estimated at $93 million — include the preservation of water quality and the continuation of affordable, small-scale recreational activities — the thousands of swimmers, kayakers, sailors, anglers, water-skiers, and other small-craft users who are the foundation of Vermont’s substantial lake-based economy. These users stay in hotels, B&B’s, summer camps, family campsites, etc.; eat in restaurants; and spend money on goods and other services. The proposed rule changes would protect the clean, clear, and safe lakes that are the foundation of this thriving tourist economy. Just a small number of wake surfers close to shore can displace other users and cause costly environmental damage, while contributing far less to the state’s economy.

The rule’s potential annual costs — about $8 million — come from the limitations that it would place on the growth of the wake surfing industry.

The rule-making process now moves on one more step — a public comment meeting on February 15 in Greensboro, Vermont. Staff from the DEC will share the draft rule, discuss the rationale, and solicit feedback. This event will conclude the extensive pre-rulemaking process.

Photo credit Tom Ward

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