Legislative session ends without addressing Willamette River boating conflicts
This story was updated from its original version
While the Oregon State Marine Board has approved rules over the past two years that further restricted wakesports along the Willamette River, the Oregon Legislature did not tweak the regulatory status quo during the recently concluded session.
However, multiple bills neared the finish line toward passage.
One bill that would have established a 5,000-pound maximum weight for wake boats and, with the approval of an amendment, banned wakesurfing and wake-enhancement devices in the Newberg Pool portion of the Willamette River from the Willamette Falls to the mouth of the Yamhill River, passed the Senate and the House Rules committee but was not brought to the floor for a vote and therefore died.
This bill was introduced by Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, after a similar bill stalled in the House. Kennemer said in an interview that a minority report notice issued by Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles — who voted against the bill in the House rules committee — effectively killed the legislation because there wasn't enough time to go through the necessary steps to get the vote to the floor prior the end of the session. He said the bill would have passed if the notice had been issued just one day earlier.
"I'm disappointed because I think it's needed for both the reasons of safety and protection of the Willamette River or more specifically the Newberg Pool," he said. "I think it (the bill) was the subject of a gigantic misinformation campaign and many lies."
Bonham said in a House rules committee meeting last week that he didn't like the precedent the bill sets in terms of regulating public waterways by "applying a land use approach to water."
The boating community, which thinks wakesports are unfairly targeted as the primary cause of erosion of riverbanks and safety issues, was satisfied that further restrictions of wakesports did not come to pass.
"It's a small victory, but I think it's a good pause to hopefully educate people who are falsely supporting these bills with no real knowledge about what's going on," said Shane Rice, a Tigard resident and avid boater, about the bill's failure.
"The boating community is relieved that this legislation did not pass. We look forward to collaborating with legislators and the broader boating community to come up with better solutions to keep our river safe and healthy," said Matt Radich, president of Active Water Sports, in a news release from the Oregon Families for Boating.
In a House rules committee work session last week, members expressed frustration about the Legislature seemingly needing to address this issue every session. The body approved a towed water sports education program and gave the marine board clearance to make rules to mitigate erosion during the 2019 session.
"I implore the state marine board to figure this out, find out where these activities can take place," said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, adding that he hoped they would do so "without causing damage in the future and causing the Legislature to go through this session after session after session."
Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, thought the marine board hadn't adequately addressed concerns about the potential for litigation related to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The board has limited wakesurfing since the 2019 session but hasn't created rules to specifically address the erosion of riverbanks. The board also did not change a rules proposal, which eventually passed, for the Newberg Pool after a 2020 letter from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked the board to strongly consider whether the large waves produced by wakesports harm threatened species like salmon and steelhead.
"I hope they will see this as a signal to do more," Smith Warner said before the committee voted to recommend the bill's passage.
Another bill that would have reshaped the marine board to include more diversified representation, including experts in biology and ecology and a water paddling organization, passed the House but languished in the Senate energy and environment committee. Kennemer said the bill died because committee Chairman Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, did not schedule a public hearing for it.
Finally, a bill that would have ordered the marine board to study the feasibility of an excise tax imposed on wake boats did not go up for a vote in the House agriculture and natural resources committee following a public hearing.
Wilsonville resident and Oregon River Safety and Preservation Alliance President Joanne Criscione wrote in a statement that two aforementioned bills receiving approval by one legislative chamber each amounted to progress and was appreciative that legislators called out the Marine Board's implementation of previous legislation.
"We sincerely hope the OSMB takes that directive seriously," she wrote.
Despite the failure of bills he steadfastly supported, Kennemer was optimistic that the board and the Legislature would address these issues in the future.
"I've had some discussions with the director and I think the marine board is going to take a hard look at the Newberg Pool and come with a different perspective that safety and environmental concerns are key issues that need to be addressed," Kennemer said.
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