/ Opinions / Whither the wakes?

Whither the wakes?

September 25, 2020 by Ted Rulseh

Wakeboarding and wakesurfing are arguably the fastest-growing water sports in the country. They are also arguably the most controversial, as many lake users and property owners object the large waves the wakeboats create.

Now research projects are underway to measure the actual impact of the boat waves — the character of the waves, the energy they carry, and their effect on shorelines and lake bottom sediments. The research is also looking at the effect thrust from the boats’ propulsion systems on lake bottoms.

This research has two basic goals: to serve potentially as a basis for sound regulation of wakeboating, and to provide a platform for educating wakeboat users on exactly how the fun they have affects other lake users and the lakes themselves.

One research project is due to start soon under the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. In part it is a response legislation the boating industry sponsored last year in Minnesota requiring wakeboats to stay at least 200 feet from shorelines.

Lake advocates insisted that was not nearly enough to prevent the disruption and annoyance wakeboats can cause. The bill never made it to the floor for a vote. 

Another research project is underway in Wisconsin, on North Lake in Waukesha County (just west of Milwaukee). There a group of lake residents enlisted Carroll University (my alma mater) in a three-phase study of wakeboat impacts.

It’s a sophisticated piece of work, taking actual measurements of wave energy, using aerial drones to observe sediment plumes that wakeboats stir up from the bottom, and using underwater drones to observe impacts on the lake bottom and plant life.

The results of these surveys could be significant, as they would replace anecdotal evidence of wakeboat effects with actual data. And that can answer questions such as: How close to shore should wakeboats operate? In what depths of water can they potentially do damage? On what sizes of lakes are they perhaps inappropriate?

It’s significant because wakeboats are causing an uproar in lake circles, and they are proliferating. In the words of one friend whose family has had property on an Oneida County lake for more than 60 years, wakeboats are “breeding like rusty crayfish.” His 398-acre lake has 13 of them.

Lake associations are striving to enact measures such as courtesy codes and operating hours in an effort to mitigate conflicts between wakeboaters and those who prefer quieter recreation. The Water Sports Industry Association promotes a “Wake Responsibly” campaign that asks wakeboaters to stay at least 200 feet from shore, tone down the loud music from the boats’ stereo systems, and avoid repeated passes over the same areas.

The question is whether that’s enough to help everyone get along and protect the lakes’ integrity. The two research projects just mentioned could help provide some answers. Those who care about the lakes and their preferred lake lifestyles should watch for these studies’ results with more than passing interest.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]

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