Regarding the article "Consider facts before taking away river rights," I found Mr. Mitchell's opinion piece last week interesting. In my 20 years as executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, I've seen this issue come and go, but in just the past few years the issue has intensified in tandem with the growth in size and weight of wake-surfing (wake dependent sports) boats.
What some may not be aware of are the significant issues property owners (both public and private) have had in relation to wake-surfing boats. Given these craft create rather large artificial waves — to "surf" as the name implies — there have been an array of well-documented impacts. What these waves do is damage property, endanger other river users, and perhaps more importantly they have a detrimental impact on the river's ecology. A recent letter from NOAA Fisheries, the federal entity that regulates the Federal Endangered Species Act in Oregon, provided their many concerns about artificial waves to the Oregon State Marine Board. This letter outlines some of the key issues that can impact endangered fish, such as spring Chinook, coho, and winter steelhead: scribd.com/document/443346268/
Unfortunately, over the past few years as wake-surfing boats have grown in size to sit ever lower in the water, all to create larger surf waves, the Oregon State Marine Board has not kept up in terms of its regulation of these newer craft. The same issue is seen between Willamette Falls and downtown Portland, just as it is being seen in the Newberg Pool.
While Mr. Mitchell seems to discount any aspect of arguments to restrict the use of wake-surfing boats that he does not personally agree with (such as a recent communication with him that flatly discounts the letter from NOAA), the ecological issues are very real. Local experts with Ph.D.s, from OSU, University of Portland and in private practice have outlined their concerns related to the negative impacts to river ecology. When we add in the safety risk to other river users, and the major damage to private property (docks, boats, shoreline erosion), the question regarding excluding some craft from some areas makes a lot of sense. In reality, it is the inverse of Mr. Mitchell's argument — the relatively few, very expensive, wake-surfing boats that are impacting the wide array of other river users on a "flat water" river are "the" issue. In some ways it is the height of arrogance for him to suggest that those with large boats that create 4-foot waves, that crash into the shoreline or into the path of other rivers — as they loop and turn back, over and over — are somehow the persecuted class of river users. Sheesh. Cabin cruisers and other boats that make large wakes are few and far between in general, and certainly do not pass back and forth for hours at a time.
Mr. Mitchell is a bit out of his element when bringing up a guide from decades ago to make a point about other river users. Non-motorized boating in Oregon has grown massively, and over the past 15 years the Willamette Water Trail has been developed and gets thousands of river users on the river each year. The Water Trail is nationally recognized, and in fact, today Travel Oregon is investing in expanding the message about the Water Trail given the promise of additional tourism dollars for Oregon from tourists both regionally and nationally. Non-motorized boaters are free to utilize all of the Willamette, as opposed to Mr. Mitchell's suggestion.
This issue is not isolated to the Willamette, or Oregon. It is being seen nationwide, with restrictions, bans, and related actions and discussion in Wisconsin, Idaho, Minnesota and many other states. The problem is that the wake-surfing industry never stopped to ask the question, "Will bringing large artificial waves to inland waters have an effect on the environment, property or other users?" The industry has fallen flat on these questions.
Education for those driving such boats is important, but so far it has not been anywhere near the answer. The reality may be that some machines simply do not belong in some places, no different than our Forest Service or BLM lands restricting certain motorized uses in some areas.
While such an issue is a tough one, especially for those who own and use their expensive wake-surfing boats, the issue is now front and center at the state level. There are also some areas nearby that make more sense for such craft, and while you would not have the convenience of a boat at the water's edge on the Willamette, the options exist.
West Linn resident Travis Williams has been executive director of the nonprofit organization Willamette Riverkeeper since June 2000.
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