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Erosion a key concern for advocates; detractors want to see more evidence before changes

PMG FILE PHOTO - Rules and requirements for the Newberg Pool portion of the Willamette River continues to be a hotly contested topic.

Interest within the Willamette River community over wakesports regulations may have reached a fever pitch this week.

While well over 100 people scribed written testimony on House Bill 2555, which would essentially lower the maximum weight of a motorboat used for towed watersports from 10,000 to 4,000 pounds in the Newberg Pool portion of the river (West Linn to Newberg), dozens provided oral testimony during the Oregon Legislature's House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources meeting Tuesday, March 9.

The Legislature and the Oregon State Marine Board have implemented regulations in recent years to restrict wakesports, but this bill could take the most drastic step — banning many boats capable of towing water skiers or surfers from entering that river section. However, state Rep. Mark Meek, D-Clackamas County, who introduces the bill, filed an amendment to increase the new weight to 6,000 pounds.

"I believe 6,000 pounds is the best compromise between industry, constituents and environmental concerns," he said at the hearing.

Along with Meek and state Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, state Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, made her case for why she thinks the bill is necessary. Neron said that wake boats, which have grown in size and power over the years, are "eroding river margins and fundamentally changing the banks."

"This bill protects a fragile portion of the river that is dying by a thousand cuts and needs your help," she said.

Experts who spoke with the committee in a previous meeting seemed to bolster her claims.

While a study has not been conducted specifically looking at the impact of wake boats on river banks, Oregon State University researchers said they've seen significant erosion occur over a number of years and that man-made wakes are a much larger cause of such erosion than natural elements.

"If in a day we have 10,000 waves with the same size located at the same elevation impact, that would be significant. It would be observable from one day to the next," OSU researcher Pedro Lomónaco told the committee.

Stan Gregory, an Oregon State University professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, said small aquatic insects that reside along the river and are the food supply for fish, birds and other organisms, as well as juvenile fish and mussels, are harmed by erosion — and he identified wakesports as a cause. He clarified that he has not studied the effects of wakeboarding on the ecology of the river, though he has studied the streams and rivers on the Willamette basin for decades.

"The edges of the Willamette River are its life and as we change this we potentially affect the life of the Willamette River, something that's important to all of us," Gregory said.

Joanne Criscione, the president of the Oregon River Safety Preservation Alliance and a Wilsonville resident, said the water on her shoreline is muddy most days and that she no longer has a gradual shoreline but instead a vertical bank. She also said dock damage caused by wake boats leads to damage that can cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair.

Further, Criscione compared the river width in the Newberg Pool to that in Portland, showing that it's much smaller and, in her view, less amenable to larger watercrafts.

In addition to the maximum weight stipulation, HB 2555 calls for a study to be conducted to examine wake boats' impact on river banks and wildlife. Bill detractors wondered why the study was being done after the weight limit went into effect rather than before, and were skeptical about the idea that wake sports were the primary cause of erosion.

"It's disturbing to me to see a lack of scientific evidence behind this," said Paige Stoyer.

Kristin McRostie of Portland testified that education and enforcement were needed rather than restrictions, and Wilsonville resident Josh Dougherty also said a lack of enforcement was at the crux of the issue. Sheriffs from Clackamas County have previously told Pamplin Media Group that consistently monitoring all waterways with limited staffing was a daunting task.

Generally, those who opposed the measure described how much joy and fulfillment wake sports have provided them and their families over the years.

Lake Oswego resident Aaron Fellis said: "It really takes away a great outdoor activity for family and kids, and I think there are other solutions to make everybody that wants to be big rivers users happily participate together."

They also worried about the vitality of a watercraft industry that could see products become less attractive if they aren't usable in large stretches of the river.

"Let's not kick families off the river and jeopardize jobs," McRostie said.

The phrase "singling out" was used many times throughout the meeting.

"I think there is overcrowding on the river. I can think of other solutions that could address the overcrowding," Greg Peden said. "Singling out is unfair."

However, Aurora resident Suzanne Brown and others said that the proliferation of large wake boats has coincided with increased environmental degradation, dock damage and other adverse effects.

"What we're really experiencing is a technological explosion that's overwhelming the river. Today there are up to 9,000-pound boats on this stretch of the river producing wakes that were never seen in the pool 15 years ago," Brown said.

Safety issues are also at the top of mind of those who support the bill.

"Sometimes it feels like there's a bully on the playground or someone driving too fast through the neighborhood where your kids are playing," Wilsonville resident Eric Lintner added.

Prior work to address the impact of wake boats in the Newberg Pool included the previous ban on wake-enhancing devices and changes to wakesurfing zones, which were reduced from five to two last year. A towed water sports endorsement program was also designed to educate or at least test the aptitude of wakesports recreators. The way HB 2555 bans larger wake boats is by preventing them from receiving the endorsement, which are required in the Newberg Pool. House Bill 2725 proposes the same requirement. Another bill discussed during the meeting would impose an excise tax on the sales of wake boats and, if an amendment is approved, revenue would go toward bolstering river law enforcement.

While some say the new bills go too far, Criscione said previous measures have been nearly sufficient.

"The state is not regulating an activity that is causing damage to the state's property and homeowners are expected to foot the bill," she said.


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