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Wake surf legislation introduced in Wisconsin brings boat debate to a head


Jason Jacobs loves wakeboarding. He’s been doing the sport for more than two decades.

Jacobs called it his first love compared to wake surfing which he got into about two years ago.

“We grew up in Wisconsin. My family has had property on the Three Lakes Chain since before I was born, since the late 40s. Our dad, when we were growing up, he taught us how to water ski and tube and all that good stuff,” said Jacobs. “I was introduced to wakeboarding in the 90s and I immediately was like, ‘This is awesome.’ Being able to jump the wave you could just do so much more than you could on skis. You know, backflips and the 360s, and all that good stuff. It's just a lot of fun.”

Jacobs recently purchased a boat for wakeboarding. It also has the capability to wake surf behind it.

The wake surf boats have become a concern for some lake associations and environmental groups in recent years.

Boats designed for wake surfing

Wake surfing is a sport where a person rides a board behind a boat in the wake it creates.

The sport has been around for decades but has grown in popularity in recent years with the Competitive Wake Surf Association established in 2012.

As the sport has grown, boat manufacturers have worked to create heavier, more powerful boats to create bigger wakes for people to surf off.

The ballast tanks can take in thousands of pounds of lake water to help weigh it down and make a bigger wake.

Some lake associations and environmental groups have become concerned in recent years about the impact these boats have on lakes.

One concern is the ballast tanks not being able to fully drain. They fear this willincrease the spread of aquatic invasive species when boats are moved from lake to lake.

Another is the potential destructive power of the propellers and waves.

The boats create waves larger than that of other speed boats. The concern is that the more powerful waves will erode shorelines and the propellers will blast the lake beds if the boats operate in too shallow water.

Jeff Meessmann says he’s seen the impact of them first-hand. He lives in Presque Isle and is a director for the Last Wilderness Alliance. It’s an organization focused on preserving natural resources from activities like wake surfing.

“What do you think is going to happen when that giant wave, larger than any wind-driven wave on my lake, hits my dock, moored boat, shoreline, littoral zone?” said Meessmann. “I've seen the damage caused by these boats, and it's really disgusting. It's irreversible.”

Jacobs is not convinced the wake surf boats do any more damage than other motorboats.

He says any boat propeller can damage a lakebed in shallow water. When the wake boats are fully engaged to create the bigger wakes, Jacobs says they’re operating in deep water because it’s better for wakeboarding and surfing.

“I've been wakeboarding itself for over two decades, the boat I had two decades ago had a ballast system in it, as well,” said Jacobs. “I would think that, you know, if these boats were really causing a problem, we'd have decade's worth of information and studies to show that look, ever since this sport started, things have been deteriorating. That just isn't the case.”

Wake surf boat studies

A major topic that comes up with wake surf boats among those setting lake ordinances is how far they need to be from the shoreline and docks.

Staying 200 feet from docks and shorelines is fairly standard for boats going faster than slow, no wake.

There are many, including Meessmann, who say that’s not enough for wake surf boats.

“These boats create large, dangerous waves that damage the environment, property, and create a safety hazard,” said Meessmann. “I live in Presque Isle and we already have a 200-foot distance from shore with this new wakesurfs. That's not enough distance.”

There have been studies in the last several years looking at the power of wake surf boats.

One was done by the Water Sports Industry Association. It says that the boats should be at least 200 feet away from shorelines and docks.

Jacobs also pointed to another study, Numerical Study of the Impact of Wake Surfing on Inland Bodies of Water, as also saying the wake surf boats can operate in at least 10ft of water and 200ft from shore and have minimal environmental impact.

“When I started hearing the murmuring of people that were trying to outright ban the sports or the use of these boats, I started digging into as much research as I could to educate myself to find out, ‘Is there really an issue? Is there a problem?’” said Jacobs. “But the more I started studying, the more I came to realize that a lot of what was being said was mostly hyperbole and conjecture and had really little to do with any scientific fact whatsoever.”

The Last Wilderness Alliance criticizes both studies as being done by the boating industry.

In response to the Numerical Study, it posted on its website saying, “This study was conducted entirely by computer modeling and was published in a “pay to publish” journal. No actual testing was used. Two of the three authors are employees of Mercury Marine. The third author appears to have been paid by the Marine Manufacturers Association.”

Instead, the Last Wilderness Alliance and Meessmann pointed the 2022 St. Anthony Falls Study, among others, that compared the height, energy, and power of four boats, two wake surf boats, and two non-surf boats used for wakeboarding.

“Based on the data and our example method for determining recommended operational distance, we show that when operating under typical wakesurfing conditions, wakesurf boats required distances greater than 500 ft to attenuate wake wave characteristics (height, energy, and power) to levels equivalent to non-wakesurf boats operating under typical planing conditions,” the study stated.

People in theboating industry say that while the study shows that wake boat waves can hit the shore from farther distances, it doesn’t prove that waves from wake boats inherently degrade shorelines.

Wisconsin Legislation

While the impact of the wake surf boats is debated, state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would regulate it.

Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) and Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) have brought forth a bill that would amend state law to define wake surfing and wakeboarding. It would put them under the “aquaplaning” category and therefore under those regulations.

It would prohibit wake surfing or wakeboarding on a body of water 50 acres or less or that is less than 400 feet wide. On lakes that are big enough, people couldn’t wakeboard and surf within 200 feet of a shoreline, dock, or other structure in the water.

“I was really glad to see that both the Senator and the Representative recognize the need for wake sports regulation in the state of Wisconsin. However, the bill they proposed will not protect our valuable lakes from the irreversible damage caused by these boats,” said Meessmann. “To that end, I strongly oppose the recently proposed co-sponsor bill relating to the regulation of wake surfing and wakeboarding.”

He says research and public opinion support more restrictions on wake sports. Meessmann referred to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress’ 2023 Citizen Resolutions questionnaire. He submitted a question regarding wakeboarding:

“Would you support the WCC and legislature modifying existing statutes to prohibit generation of intentionally magnified wakes for wake surfing through the use of ballast, design features, operational procedures or any other means on lakes smaller than 1500 acres and less than 20 feet deep and maintain a distance from shore and other lake users of 700 feet?”

It passed 426 to 228.

Meessmann doesn’t want to ban wake sports. He wants to see legislation that restricts the lake surf boats to larger lakes and keeps them further from shore than the 200 feet in the bill.

“I think there is a solution. I really believe there's a workable solution to this problem but certainly not with the proposed bill that our representatives have submitted,” said Meessmann.

Meessmann is also concerned about another part of the bill. It would take away local control by not allowing lake districts or municipalities to create more restrictive ordinances.

“I can't emphasize enough that we need to have local control available to us to work through this issue,” said Meessmann.

Jacobs doesn’t believe there is a need for any restrictive regulation specifically aimed at wakeboarding or wake surfing in general.

He supports the bill saying it will protect the sport.

“In Wisconsin, we fortunately have a state where lakes are open to, for the majority, public use and for public recreating. Sometimes local lake districts if they have people that want to restrict activities of recreating in Wisconsin, could come up with restrictions that really have no basis in fact, and preclude people from enjoying these activities that they otherwise would,” said Jacobs. “I think as far as the bill is concerned, what it does is it helps to create these statewide standards that already exist for other activities such as skiing and everything else and puts the standard statewide.”

You view the bill here.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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