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Conservation group warns of effects of wake boats on Wisconsin lakes

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Conservation group warns of effects of wake boats on Wisconsin lakes

Feb 27, 2024 | 6:40 am ET
By Henry Redman
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Conservation group warns of effects of wake boats on Wisconsin lakes
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A wake boat tows a wakeboarder on an inland lake. A forthcoming report recommends limits on the use of wake boats on Wisconsin inland lakes. (Getty Images)

In a forthcoming report, a conservation group warns that the use of wake boats on the state’s lakes can pose harmful risks to aquatic plants and animals, increase erosion and transfer invasive species. 

The report, released by Wisconsin Green Fire, is a review of the literature studying the effect that wake boats have on bodies of water. Wake boats —  which are generally 18-25 foot boats with deep v-shaped hulls and engines with more than 350 horsepower to displace a lot of water and generate large wakes  — have gained popularity in recent years. The often-expensive watercraft are also used to create bigger wakes for water sports such as wakeboarding. 

“Wake boats are here to stay on Wisconsin waters and across the nation,” the report states. “While wake boats bring enjoyment to users, lakes and rivers are not sterile or isolated pools. These ecosystems are alive and exist in a delicate state of stability in terms of water quality, habitat for flora and fauna, as well as areas of cultural and spiritual importance to many communities.”

Green Fire notes in the report, authored by David Ortiz, a PhD student at UW-Madison’s Center for Limnology, that the organization doesn’t want to stop people from using their boats, but make recommendations for using them safely in order to preserve Wisconsin’s lakes for future generations as the important natural resource they are. 

The report reviews research articles on wake boat use published in the United States, Canada and Australia. The major recommendation in the report is to allow the use of wake boats only on lakes with at least 40 contiguous acres of open water, all of it more than 20 feet deep and more than 600 feet from any shoreline. 

The report also recommends instituting a carrying capacity for the number of wake boats allowed at one time on a given lake. It also recommends requiring users to wait a minimum wait of four days and to clean the boat’s hull, trailer, ballast systems, and bilge before putting a wake boat in an unconnected water body. 

Wisconsin Green Fire Executive Director Meleesa Johnson says the report was commissioned to start using data to assess the use of wake boats in Wisconsin rather than just “spitballing” it. 

“People want to use these boats, that’s great if they can afford them, more power to them — I’d have to work several lifetimes to afford one of them,” she says. “But we also have a resource that many of us rely on not just for boating, but for economic development.”

Those interests matter as much as the pleasure that wake boats bring for their owners, Johnson argues.

“If we destroy a lake, or not destroy it, but just disrupt it, and it’s a lake that’s used for walleye habitat for spawning,” she says. “Well, neighboring communities probably want to make sure that there’s a robust walleye habitat for spawning because they rely on people coming fishing and spending money and recreating that way.”

The report aims to encourage long-range thinking to ensure the long-term health of the state’s waterways. 

“We all have a right to this wonderful resource called Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers,” Johnson says.  “How do we best preserve the resource for all users not just today, but well into the future? That’s what we hope to kind of unearth rather than just you know, spitballing it. Let’s start bringing some of this information together, identify lakes where it’s clearly just not suitable, and then identify those where it might be an option.” 

Green Fire hasn’t yet been able to do a comprehensive study of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes to determine exactly which ones fit the report’s criteria. 

Johnson says she hopes the report’s recommendations can help reduce conflicts already happening on lakes across the state between wake boaters, property owners and other water users such as kayakers. 

“On some lakes in Wisconsin, both medium sized and smaller, there already are conflicts with boaters so that friction already exists,” she says. “If you want to be a paddler and someone’s coming along with a large boat, not a wake boat, a larger boat, it certainly disrupts that experience. It gets back to the fact that these beautiful resources, which we all love, and use in multiple ways, belong to all of us. So we have to be respectful of that.”

A bill introduced in the state Legislature this session would have prohibited wakesurfing and wakeboarding on bodies of water smaller than 50 acres or less than 400 feet wide and prohibited the sport within 200 feet of the shoreline. The bipartisan proposal failed to receive a committee hearing in either chamber.