The Lake Minnetonka Conservation District (LMCD) is submitting a formal letter of opposition to members of the Minnesota state legislature in response to a pair of bills that seek to add a boat-to-shore buffer zone for wakesurfing.
The adoption of a 200-foot buffer zone, as proposed this legislative season, was also the focus of failed legislation one year ago. It’s also still a point of contention for the LMCD, which has not yet taken a stance on the issue as its board members await the results of new research completed late last year and due out next month.
The conservation district is also opposing the preemption clause included in the identical state House and state Senate bills and that board members say would eliminate local control through allowing potentially looser state safety regulations to prevail.
“We want to have discretion over these issues and want to be able to make policy […] The only discretion that we would have is whether or not we want to stipulate that [the 200-foot buffer zone is] further from shore,” said Jake Walesch, LMCD board member for Deephaven. Board members reviewed a draft of the letter at their work session March 10. Subcommittee members then finalized the letter March 15.
State representatives Erin Koegel (DFL-Spring Lake Park) and Zack Stephenson (DFL-Coon Rapids) authored the House bill that would if passed establish the 200-foot no wake zone between boats and shoreline, docks or other watercraft. State Sen. Mark Johnson (R-East Grand Forks) authored the companion bill in the Minnesota Senate.
The LMCD is currently waiting on the results of a study conducted by the University of Minnesota St. Anthony Falls Lab that is measuring the effects of wakes and prop wash on shoreline and lake bottoms. Preliminary results are expected in April.
The 200-foot buffer zone entered the conversation following a 2015 report by the Water Sports Industry Association (WSIA). But that report is now out of date, LMCD board members say, referencing the higher-powered watercraft now on the market.
“The study the boating industry conducted, and is apparently the basis for the proposed 200 feet from shore distance, appears to be based on a wake created by a boat that is significantly less powerful than the standard wake generating capabilities of the wake boats existing today,” reads the finalized letter being submitted to members of the state House and Senate environmental policy committees.
“The LMCD would highly recommend the words ‘more than 200 feet from shore’ are removed from this state-wide legislation to allow local governments, including counties, cities, townships, and the LMCD, the option for greater flexibility in further regulating this activity on their local waters,” the letter reads.
Ann Hoelscher, LMCD vice chair and Victoria’s representative to the LMCD, recapped the board’s position March 10, saying that “In light of the ongoing research that is out there, we don’t have that information [on safe distance] in yet” and that “maybe it’s premature to put that number in legislation.”
Board members also stated they were wary of the bills’ preemption clause for the effect it may have on regulating lake safety.
“We are a legislatively created body with specific statutory authority to regulate boats and lake use on Lake Minnetonka to ensure safety and access,” the letter reads. “It is of paramount importance that any new state-wide regulations do not restrict the LMCD’s authority to pass ordinances that preserve the safety and well-being of Lake Minnetonka users.”
Of particular concern to LMCD board members with regard to this clause is the further stipulation within the two bills that anyone towing someone behind their boat has the option of choosing between having a human observer or just a mirror “with a wide field of vision.” LMCD policy currently requires someone of at least 12 years of age to be an observer, and board members in their letter argue that a mirror is simply not enough to ensure safety.
“Not all Minnesota lakes are the same,” said Wayzata LMCD representative Dan Baasen, adding that Lake Minnetonka is often highly congested. “I don’t think this [legislation] is going to solve our problems on Lake Minnetonka. It might be a help, but it’s not going to solve them.”
Board member Mark Kroll, of Excelsior, went further, saying “This bill does no good for the citizens of any lakes” and pointed out that wakeboats generally do not go within 200 feet of shore anyway because the water is not deep enough for them to do so.
The LMCD, apart from awaiting the St. Anthony Falls Lab results, is pursuing collaboration with industry groups, the Hennepin County Sheriffs’ Water Patrol and other stakeholders to promote safe and responsible wakesurfing on Lake Minnetonka.
The board unanimously approved at its February board meeting to work with members of the WSIA and the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) on a comprehensive educational program that would address everything from basic safety to etiquette and noise pollution.
The LMCD leant its support to helping craft this program on the condition that mention of any kind of buffer zone be eliminated from it. The original draft of the program, like the pending legislation, advocated a 200-foot buffer between boats and shoreline, docks and other watercraft.