Buoying a safer river
At the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning in May, Ken Gerboort and two companions hauled 40-pound buoys and an even heavier anchor system into a motorboat and planted them 100 feet from the shore at various points along the Willamette River near Wilsonville.
Gerboort, who lives along the Willamette River, is a part of an organization — the Oregon River Safety Preservation Alliance — that lobbied Rep. Richard Vial to introduce a bill to study the impacts of river safety along the Willamette River and potentially lead to further boating restrictions in the area. But the bill stalled at the February legislative session.
With the current rules in place for the foreseeable future, Gerboort and other homeowners along the river view the buoys more as a salve than a remedy for the prevailing problem, which they see as large fast-moving boats creating wakes that damage waterfront property, endanger water goers and expedite erosion.
The buoys remind boaters that it's illegal for them to travel above a no-wake speed within 100 feet of private docks, boat houses or moorages permitted by the Oregon Department of State Lands from the Highway 219 Bridge south of Newberg to Willow Island east of Wilsonville where the Willamette turns north. Gerboort entrenched 13 buoys on that Saturday alone and has installed 33 so far.
"That's why we're putting the buoys out, is to let the public know that we've got a problem and bring it more to the forefront," Gerboort said. "Right now the only thing that tells the public there's an issue is there's a sign at each boat ramp and it's about two-and-a-half by three feet big and nobody reads it. If nothing else the buoys make people aware that we have an issue."
The ORSPA, which is made up mostly of Wilsonville residents and was formed in December, is in the process of filing as a nonprofit organization and, according to its website, supports policies that "balance the needs of different types of river users; improve safety and protection of people and property (e.g., boats, docks, shoreline); minimize adverse impacts so that our waterways remain viable as a recreational resource for a wide range of users for generations to come."
The ORSPA organized the buoy placements, attained a permit from the Oregon State Marine Board to implement the buoys and was tasked with measuring the distance of the buoys from the shore. However, the marine board can remove the buoys if they are too far away from the shoreline. The buoys cost about $400 a piece and each homeowner who requested a buoy in the area paid for it.
Gerboort expects more owners to request buoys along the river.
"I suspect when they start seeing buoys on either side of them, we're going to get a lot of phone calls and a lot more buoys coming in," he said.
Clackamas County Sheriff Nate Thompson, who is a supervisor of the marine patrol unit, said his unit doesn't often see boaters break the 100-foot rule but said he think they probably do so when the police aren't watching. Thompson also supports the homeowners implementation of the buoys. He also doesn't often see homeowners take the initiative to garner permits for buoys.
"I think putting out these buoys is going to be a great tool for not only the homeowners but the boaters to see what is exactly 100 feet from the dock is and where they need to stay away from," Thompson said.
During the summer months, Wilsonville resident and ORSPA member Katherine Farrell kayaks early in the morning to avoid the afternoon boating jam and what she deems to be dangerous wakes.
Farrell said she wants to find a happy medium between the interests of boaters and homeowners, but thinks that the area needs to be better regulated to prevent serious accidents.
"I think there's going to be an accident. I think there could be a fatality," she said. "That may be stretching (it) but there's going to be an accident. I have no doubt about that because this area is so congested. All kinds of boats are going by and all types of people are using it."
Gerboort said his dock has experienced more damage in the last five years than the previous 25 due to increasingly large boats that create excessive wakes. He's also worried about erosion.
"I have not repaired my dock because it's still going on and there's no point in putting 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars on my dock when it's just going to get torn up again," he said.
Gerboort indicated that the ORSPA will continue to advocate the Oregon Legislature to consider greater restrictions along the Willamette River and more stringent enforcement of wake enhancement device usage, which he sees as a prominent cause of increasing wakes. WEDs are banned in the area but Thompson said enforcing the ban is challenging because WEDs are often concealed and they can't search someone's boat without a warrant.
Farrell would also like to see the State Marine Board implement more signage at the dock so that people are aware of the rules and that scattershot law enforcement in the area is also an issue.
After they heard Vial might introduce legislation that would bolster restrictions on the pocket of the Willamette River near Wilsonville, an array of boating advocates plead their case to him at a Wilsonville City Council meeting in January.
"I think it's (the bill) going to negatively affect the tourism aspect of the city because a lot of people do come from neighboring areas to partake in the activities. It's not just us. There's a lot of folks that know that stretch of water and enjoy it thoroughly," Kelly Gilmore said at the meeting.
And a couple people raised concern that such strict policies could congest other areas of the river that may not be as safe.
"They're going to be pushed to the outer limits to do wakeboarding activities that are so dangerous for them it's going to scare me and the whole family," Keeley O'Brien said at the meeting.
Gerboort, though, is worried that without more stringent rules and greater enforcement of the current rules, the 100-foot rule might not make much of a difference.
"If we don't have wake enhancing (restrictions) then the 100-foot rule makes more sense," he said. "It (the 100-foot rule) still doesn't solve the problem because the boats are bigger and the wake carries a long ways."