This story was updated from its original version
Legislation that would limit the size of wake boats to 4,000 pounds or less in the Newberg Pool portion of the Willamette River (from roughly West Linn to Newberg) floundered in the Oregon House of Representatives. And yet, a bill that would serve the same function is still alive in the Oregon Senate.
The bill, Senate Bill 857, is sponsored by state Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, who lives along the Willamette River. If approved, wakeboarders and wakesurfers could only receive a required watersports endorsement if the weight of their motorboat falls under the threshold.
"I fear that these big boats are literally killing the upper Willamette River," Kennemer said.
A pair of identical House bills received a public hearing in March in which dozens of nearby residents and interest groups made their voices heard. Oregon State University professors also weighed in, giving credence to the idea that wakesports, which produce large waves, have played a role in damaging riverbanks. Some riverfront owners also reported property damage and others said the large boats endangered other recreators.
Meanwhile, boat dealers said they rarely sell wake boats that weigh under 4,000 pounds when factoring in ballast capacity, and boaters felt that wake boats were being scapegoated for issues that also may be caused by other kinds of watercraft. They argued that further examination was needed prior to essentially removing wake boats from that section of the river.
Kennemer's bill calls for the Oregon State Marine Board to study adverse impacts and inform whether to increase the maximum weight.
However, the legislation was never brought up for a committee vote in the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. Pamplin Media Group could not reach Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie — who sponsored the legislation and previously chaired the committee — for comment. But Kennemer said he heard the bill had enough votes to pass the House floor but lacked the support to pass out of the committee, which is why it wasn't brought forward for a committee vote.
Both Kennemer and Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, felt that the vehement opposition among certain groups and lobbyists played a role in the legislation's demise.
"The boat owners have hired powerful lobbyists, and they are working against the bill," Kennemer said.
Neron said: "The opposition is quite vocal. The boat dealers and some of the individual families who are regular wakesurfing families are upset that they will need to do their activity in a different and more appropriate place. In the end I think there's a lot of support for making sure we protect our natural resources in Oregon. This is a bipartisan effort, and it's really about focusing on what I see as an Oregon value of looking out for our river and our natural resources appropriately."
Jenny Wiepert, a Wilsonville resident, started a petition that has garnered over 4,300 signatures. She also contacted legislators to try to convince them to oppose the bill. She felt the legislation was being pushed by a small minority and that preventing recreators from using this section of the river for wakesports was unjust.
"I know there are thousands of people in the community who don't want this," she said. "I wanted to communicate that it is not wanted by the people in the district."
Wiepert added: "We live here because this is a huge part of what we get to enjoy, especially during COVID. Outdoor activities are a premium right now."
Kennemer wasn't sure whether the legislation had any chance of passing through the Senate. The bill currently is in the Rules Committee and a public hearing has yet to be scheduled. But he thought the issue was important, and equated the current state of the river to that of the mid-20th century when the Willamette was heavily polluted prior to reforms.
"It's a tough thing, but you don't destroy the river for recreational pleasure. I think we all have to be better stewards of what we have and have to learn the lesson from the '60s and '70s when they destroyed the river. We're right on that edge now," he said.
Wiepert wasn't sure whether she would launch a similar effort to try to prevent the Senate bill from passing.
"I don't want to bring it more attention if it's not on their radar. I'm going to decide if I should update my petition and ask people to send emails," she said.
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