Smith: Legislators propose UW study on effects of wake surfing on Wisconsin lakes

With a pro-boating industry bill apparently dead in the Legislature and after a more lake-protective proposal failed to muster support among the Republican caucus, the prospect is dim for any new, statewide wake surfing law to take effect this year in Wisconsin.

But a measure to bolster the science of the impacts of wake-enhanced boating could garner more favor.

A proposal announced Tuesday by Republicans would task the University of Wisconsin System with conducting a study on the effects of wake boating.

A sign installed at Diamond Lake in Bayfield County lists the prohibition on wake surfing.
A sign installed at Diamond Lake in Bayfield County lists the prohibition on wake surfing.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) and Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), calls for UW to assess the impact of the powerful motorboats on "lake bottoms, fish nesting, aquatic vegetation, and sediment disruption, and assess the wave energy generated by enhanced wakes."

It also calls for the university system to request funding to pay for the study in the 2025-27 state budget.

Wake boats are power craft with special ballast tanks designed to increase their displacement and create larger than normal waves for surfing or tubing. Several thousand pounds of lake water are commonly taken into the tanks to increase the wake.

The waves are large enough to allow surfers to follow the boat without a tow rope.

While the boats provide a new option for water sports enthusiasts, the large wakes and powerful downthrusts raise concerns of ecological damage, shoreline erosion and conflicts with other lake users.

In addition, there are concerns about aquatic invasive species being spread between lakes via the boat's ballast tanks. A group of Wisconsin citizens recently filed a petition with the Department of Natural Resources in an effort to require wake boats to stay on a single waterbody or prove they were decontaminated before moving.

Three public listening sessions led last fall by Felzkowski and Swearingen overflowed with northern Wisconsin residents calling for additional state restrictions on wake-enhanced boating.

A non-profit organization called Lakes At Stake Wisconsin even formed last year to address the issue.

But the Water Sports Industry Association is actively working in Wisconsin and other states to promote wake boating friendly legislation.

The association and Schrieber GR, its in-state lobbying firm, in 2023 helped Wisconsin Republicans draft Assembly Bill 656 and its companion Senate Bill 680. The measure was similar to legislation introduced in other states and would prevent wake sports from lakes of 50 acres or less and from operating within 200 feet from shore. It would also nullify more restrictive local ordinances on wake surfing. It was criticized as falling far short of providing protections for Wisconsin lakes and never received a hearing in either chamber.

Another more restrictive proposal, authored by Sen. Andres Jacque (R-De Pere), would have prohibited wake surfing on a lake smaller than 1,500 acres, required wake-enhanced boats to operate at least 700 feet from the shoreline and at least 700 feet from any boat, swimmer, or other water user.

However it didn't receive enough support from the Republican caucus to even get a bill number.

With the 2023-24 Legislative session nearing its end, the proposal for a UW System study of wake-enhanced boating is likely to get more support but could run out of time.

Felzkowski and Swearingen acknowledged the challenges in their Tuesday correspondence to fellow legislators.

"As many have come to realize throughout this session, how we should regulate wakeboats in Wisconsin is a very contentious issue – with strong, passionate viewpoints coming from all different sides of the argument," they wrote. "To get a full, unbiased picture of how wakeboats impact Wisconsin waterways, we are asking the UW System to include a state-sponsored wakeboat study in their agency requests for the 2025-27 biennial budget."

The proposal would require the study be conducted over a two-year period, comparing the wakes from wake boats in wake sport mode with those made by various, similarly-sized watercraft without ballast and wave-shaping technology.

The legislators are asking for co-sponsors by Friday.

The potential for any type of power boating, but especially wake-enhanced boating, to damage lakes isn't questioned. The debate is over how bad the damage is and how to regulate the activity.

A recent Wisconsin's Green Fire review of published studies concluded wake boating should only be done on lakes with at least a 40-acre contiguous area with water at least 20 feet deep and more than 600 feet from any shoreline.

Effective this month Vermont officials implemented the nation's most restrictive wake boating rule. It prohibits wake sports on lakes, ponds and reservoirs that do not have a minimum of 50 contiguous acres that are both 500 feet from shore on all sides and are a minimum of 20 feet deep. It also requires the 50-acre area to be at least 200 feet wide.

Lakes At Stake Wisconsin on Wednesday thanked the legislators for introducing the study bill but said it would also like protections put in place in the interim.

"We wholeheartedly advocate for funding a complete and actionable study to help determine future policy that protects our lakes and Wisconsin tourism for years to come, and hope that the Water Sports Industry Association will join us in supporting this comprehensive study," said Paul Gardetto, president of Lakes At Stake Wisconsin in a statement. "We also urge legislators to introduce temporary protections while the study is underway. Two years is too long to wait for reform while our state’s most precious treasures are being ravaged by damaging, enhanced wakes."

Attempts Wednesday to obtain comment on the proposed Wisconsin study from the Water Sports Industry Association were unsuccessful.

Update on Wisconsin wake boat petition: A group of Wisconsin residents on Feb. 9 filed a petition with the DNR in an effort to reduce the potential for wake boats to spread aquatic invasive species. The "home lake rule" would require wake boats to stay on a single body of water or prove they were properly drained or decontaminated before launching on another. The petition was signed by 242 state residents, said Jim Olson of Madison, leader of the effort. The DNR is expected to respond to the petition in the coming weeks. However implementation of a change to state administrative code required by the petition would likely take two to three years.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Legislators propose UW study on wake surfing on Wisconsin lakes