Lawmakers mull limits for wake surfing on Willamette River
Oregon House Bill 2555 is directly tied to a 20-mile stretch of the Willamette River, but if passed, its ripple effects could be felt as far as Henry Hagg Lake.
The proposed legislation is aimed at the "Newberg Pool" and would restrict towing — people on wakeboards, wake surfers and inner tubes to name a few — to boats not exceeding 4,000 pounds.
The Newberg Pool, as it's often called, is the part of the Willamette River roughly between Newberg and the Willamette Falls. It is an exceedingly popular place for area boaters.
Prohibiting tow sports on that span would displace a significant number of boaters, likely leading more people to alternative recreational boating areas, such as Hagg Lake near Gaston, critics of the proposed legislation warn.
"If they shut down this big of an area of the river, all of the other areas where you can do this are going to become smaller and smaller, and more and more congested," Active Water Sports president Matt Radich said. "That's going to lead to huge safety issues."
The bill is sponsored by Reps. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone; Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville; and Jeff Reardon, D-Happy Valley. It stems from the idea that the increased traffic, coupled with the size of the wakes produced from boats exceeding 4,000 pounds, is resulting in potentially harmful erosion of area riverbanks, and doing so at an expeditious rate.
Neron said that in addition to the damage being done to docks, bridges and buildings, the increased wave activity is undercutting the riverbanks and eroding margins.
"The Newberg Pool is a really tall and steep-sided section of the river, with very soft embankments as well," said Neron, whose sprawling district includes a swath of Washington County from South Hillsboro to Sherwood, taking in King City and parts of Aloha, Beaverton and Tigard along the way.
She added, "What we're seeing is that the summertime activity pushing waves out this way is actually impacting the banks perpendicularly, as the steep walls are being undercut."
HB 2555 is one of a trio of bills that aim to limit towed sports in the area, which some believe will pave the way for future restrictions.
All three bills — HB 2555; HB 2695, which would expand the current five-person Oregon State Marine Board (OSMB) to nine; and HB 2734, which directs the OSMB to study imposing an excise tax on wake boat sales — would be detrimental to not only towed-sports enthusiasts, but the boating industry and local boating supply merchants as well, Radich argued.
Radich cited local gas stations, boat storage facilities, boat dealerships and boat repair services as businesses that depend on income generated from boaters, many of which are wakeboard and wake surfers — which will be directly affected by new restrictions.
Neron said the proposed 4,000-pound limit would encompass a small percentage of area users' boats. Radich disagrees, saying that as many as two-thirds of the boats that frequent the Newberg Pool would be prohibited from tow sports.
"If that weight limit is actually put into effect, it cuts out any boat we sell except for tournament water ski boats," said Radich, referring to his dealership, Active Water Sports, which has locations in Beaverton and Oregon City. "It could have a detrimental effect on our business."
Heather Asa is concerned as well.
Asa's son Bobby was badly injured in a car crash in 2017, when he was 17. He is still recovering and learning to live with physically disabling injuries. While there are things he might never be able to do again, he is still able to partake in tow sports on the water.
Heather Asa said her concern is that if legislation such as what's proposed in HB 2555 were to pass, restricting boating operations on the Newberg Pool, that could lead to similar legislation from passing elsewhere down the road, further limiting and ultimately doing away with some of the activities people with disabilities, like her son, are able to enjoy.
"It's very disturbing," Asa said. "There are so many people that benefit from being on the water, and it can be shared.
"I cannot express how important it is to keep the Willamette accessible to people with disabilities. The water has been life-changing to us, and taking it away would only cause more heartache to people in an already-difficult situation."
Legislation like this isn't new. In fact, boating regulations are annually amended.
This past January, the Oregon Marine Board passed new rules for a 3.9-mile stretch of the lower Willamette River, banning wake surfing from the Waverly Marina to Willamette Falls beginning May 1, 2021.
In addition, laws are commonly passed involving boat inspections, boating-related fees and services, and mandatory safety education courses.
But it's the safety and education aspect of it all where Radich feels lies the answer, instead of adopting legislation that will push boats and boaters out of public waterways.
"There's certainly people that use their boat in an irresponsible manner, and some people simply don't know what they're doing," Radich said. "But let's educate these people and help them understand what their waves can do and how they should be operating. Then let's put some resources into enforcement and we can solve these problems together."
Neron says it's not so much about what they're doing, but more about where they're doing it. She maintains that the Newberg Pool is simply too narrow of an area to handle the type of activity it now sees.
"What we're asking is that people consider whether their activity is appropriate for a space, and what this is saying is that certain activities and wave energy is not appropriate for this space," Neron said. "So we would request that people go to a Hagg Lake, or Detroit Lake, or the Columbia River, or somewhere wider that allows for more dissipation of the wave energy."
The Willamette River is approximately 500 feet wide in the section that HB 2555 would restrict.
Radich argues there hasn't been enough study yet of how boat waves affect on-shore erosion. Oregon State University researchers suggested a one- to three-year study would be needed to accurately assess the impact. "Why not wait for it?" Radich says.
"Instead of saying, 'Hey, that's a good idea, let's look at that,'" he said, "they're saying, 'Let's ban everything, then see how it goes.' It's like guilty until proven innocent."
If you're interested in learning more, you can sign up to participate in a hearing before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee through the website oregonfamiliesforboating.org.
To read the bills in their entirety, visit oregonlegislature.gov.
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