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Compliance and enforcement continue to be a cause of concern for some people

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Oregon State Marine Board's new rules for the Newberg Pool portion of the Willamette River were put to the test this summer.

The old adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same" may apply to boating along the Newberg Pool.

For the second time in two years, the Oregon State Marine Board updated its rules in early 2020 for the portion of the Willamette River roughly from West Linn to Newberg to address concerns about wakesurfing activity damaging docks and causing safety issues. The rules went into effect July 1. The tweaks were then put to the test this summer.

As was seen after previous rule tweaks, watersports advocates and those wanting to limit watersports disagree about whether they go too far or not far enough while agreeing that there isn't enough law enforcement presence to ensure the rules are abided.

"A lot of the rules that have been in place in the past could have worked better if law enforcement was enforcing them," said Matt Radich, the president of boat dealership Active Water Sports.

In 2019, the board changed its rules to create zones where wakesurfing is and isn't allowed. This year, it reduced the number of wakesurfing zones from five to two and stipulated that sports other than wakesurfing would not be allowed in wakesurfing zones. Meanwhile, it rolled out a watersports education program, which wakesurfers and borders must complete to perform those sports on the waterway.

Joanne Criscione, a Wilsonville resident and the president of the Oregon River Safety and Preservation Alliance, said this past summer she frequently saw wakesurfers recreating in front of her home (which is not in a wakesurfing zone) and many boats that did not have towed water sports endorsements.

"I personally saw a lot more people surfing outside of the zones this year," Criscione said. "A lot of them did not have the stickers (showing endorsement). I personally observed that people bought new and heavier boats this year. So the impact of wake boats is pretty significant, especially newer ones where they're ballasted."

Criscione added that she saw very little law enforcement presence on her section of the river.

According to Clackamas County Sheriff's Office statistics, law enforcement issued 435 warnings and 11 citations in the Newberg Pool during the boating season. Ninety-five of the warnings were for wake activity and 77 were for not having the towed watersports endorsement.

Like last year, CCSO Sgt. Nathan Thompson said officers' primary goal was to educate boaters about the rules rather than penalize them. And he noted that the new rules going into effect well into boating season caused confusion for boaters. He said law enforcement would be less lenient in future years when the rules are more established.

"We're issuing a ton of warnings. That's because most, if not every, boat we stopped, it's the first time we talked to them and they're getting warnings for brand-new rules. It doesn't make sense to issue citations for these violations," Thompson said.

Despite some perceiving otherwise, CCSO personnel have increased presence significantly the past two years, devoting 398 hours to patrolling the river this year and 400 last year compared to between 72 and 283 yearly between 2014 and 2018.

Thompson said this kind of presence is not sustainable and that they may need to devote more time to other areas that receive more water traffic (like the Clackamas River) or have new rules next year (the lower Willamette River).

One reason law enforcement may seem sparse is that there often are two to three law enforcement personnel tasked with patrolling the entire county waterways.

"We put a very large amount of man-hours in that section (Newberg Pool) compared to how many boaters (there are). There are a lot more boaters and activity on other bodies," he said.

Marine Board Environmental Policy and Program Manager Josh Mulhollem said the board received fewer calls about safety complaints this year compared to previous years, while Thompson noted that there hadn't been any major accidents or fatalities this year in that section of the river.

However, both Thompson and Mulhollem noticed many new boaters in the area who might have been trying out the activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that many of these boaters might not have known the rules.

"This year was a challenge all over the state because of restrictions of COVID leading to so many new boaters on the water who were unfamiliar with state rules," Mulhollem said.

Another challenge is signage. Both Radich and Criscione said the signs explaining the rules weren't clear or big enough. Some signs also referred boaters to the board website to learn the rules via a QR code.

"If you are someone who checks things like that, they're defined there. If you're not someone who reads the signs before they go, I think they would miss it," Radich said.

Mulhollem said in late September that 400 endorsements had been issued and 800 people had taken the test to receive the endorsement. While unsatisfied with compliance, Criscione said the endorsement program was beneficial overall.

"Some of the positive compliance we saw with the new zonal regulations was in part because of towed water sports education requirements," Mulhollem said.

Radich said he noticed surf zones were crowded on the weekends, while Thompson said the biggest challenge as far as compliance was people performing other activities besides wakesurfing in surf zones. And both said more river-goers flocked to the lower Willamette River due to the restrictions on the upper Willamette. However, next year, wakesports will be more restricted in the lower portion of the river.

Radich said he hasn't felt the economic impact from the rules yet but is worried that could be imminent.

"My concern as someone who is in the business of towed boats (is) all these single decisions come together to create something that is detrimental to the recreational boating business, and we lose revenue and lose jobs," Radich said.

Meanwhile, Criscione and others continue to document erosion occurring near her dock, which she says is due to the waves produced by wakesports activities. There has not been a comprehensive erosion study along the river.

"We lost probably 3 feet deep of our embankment from the beginning to the end of summer," she said.

Groups concerned about water sports activities also are worried about impacts on wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked the board to more strongly consider wildlife impacts prior to the passage of the latest rules. The letter did not compel the board to change its proposed rules.

Though they are on opposite sides of the issue, Criscionne and Radich both would like to see the board evaluate and consider rule changes with more objective data, with Criscione adding that board members Laura Jackson and Craig Withee have been asking the right questions. The board plans to keep the current rules in effect for a while before tweaking them. Mulhollem said staff didn't have plans to collect additional data to document how effective they are.

"It would be great if we could get all the agencies to work together to look at this problem and document what's actually happening," Criscione said.

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