After a similar bill floundered in the Oregon House, an amended version of a bill that would limit towed watersports in the Newberg Pool portion of the Willamette River passed through the Senate Rules Committee this week.
According to chief sponsor Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, the bill is designed to address safety concerns, water quality and erosion — which supporters say has been largely caused by sports like wakesurfing and wakeboarding — in the section of the river roughly from West Linn to Newberg.
However, significant changes were made to the initial version of the bill, including increasing the maximum loading weight for wakesports from 4,000 pounds to 5,000 pounds (the current maximum weight is 10,000 pounds), expanding the boundaries of the Newberg Pool from a 20-mile stretch to a nearly 30-mile section from the Willamette Falls to the month of the Yamhill River, specifying that wakesurfing would be banned and reintroducing a restriction on wake-enhancement devices. The House bill received a public hearing but was not put up for a vote in the Agriculture and Natural Resources committee.
Under current rules, wakesurfing is only allowed in two small sections of the 20-mile stretch.
"Wakesurfing is regulated differently than other towed watersports in the Newberg Pool already. This bill would just expand the restrictions on wakesurfing," said Josh Mulhollem, the Oregon State Marine Board's environmental and policy program manager.
Nearly all members of the committee, including Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, voted in favor of the amendment and the passage of the bill through the committee stage. Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Kesier, voted against both but said she didn't yet know how she would vote once the bill reached the Senate floor.
"There's been a lot of information flying around as to what needs to be done or not be done or how it needs to be done so I'm going to be taking a closer look at this bill now that it's been amended. I'm not sure how I will vote on the floor. I appreciate the effort to improve it, soften it, to help bring some people around," Thatcher said during a meeting where the committee approved the bill Tuesday, Jan. 15.
According to Marine Board data, the average loading weight for boats that have received the required towed watersports endorsement since it was introduced in 2020 has been about 5,000 pounds, and the vast majority of boats that have received it have weighed between 3,000 and 7,000 pounds. Out of 437 total boats that have the endorsement decal, about 80 weigh between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds. Kennemer indicated that the weight increase was supported by Marine Board Director Larry Warren and that he considered input from a public hearing in making the change.
"One of the key issues of the (public) hearing was the weight of the boat and after listening to the concerns we decided to move the poundage for the boats from 4,000 to 5,000," Kennemer said during the meeting.
The Marine Board had banned WEDs in this section of the river prior to 2019 but nixed the ban in part because law enforcement communicated that it was too challenging to enforce. Mulhollem also noted that such devices are commonly used by wakesurfers and less so by other wakesports users.
"Some of the boats designed for wake-enhancing activities are also designed for towed watersports," he said. "Especially water skiing and pulling of inflatables, most of those watercrafts don't have any kind of enhancement device."
Kennemer indicated at the meeting that the geographic change was added to make the Newberg Pool zone more clearly definable.
"It is a relatively modest expansion but it is a more logical expansion because it's hard to explain why certain parts are limited," he said, adding that the falls and the Yamhill River were more easily recognizable.
The bill will now advance to the Senate floor for a vote. If it receives the requisite votes, the House will need to pass it before it goes to Gov. Kate Brown's desk for approval.
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