Jim Lengel: Wake up if you want to protect Vermont lakes

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This commentary is by Jim Lengel, a Vermont resident since 1972. His family owns a camp on Lake Elmore, and a lodge in Duxbury. In the 1980s, he was Vermont's deputy commissioner of education.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has worked for almost a year to draft a rule that would regulate wake surfing, a new sport where powerful boats create large wakes that abuse the lakes and exclude other forms of recreation. 

The department’s draft rule would keep wake boats 500 feet from shore, and in water more than 20 feet deep. 

While this draft rule moves Vermont in the right direction, it does not fully protect the traditional enjoyments of swimming, canoeing, sailing, fishing, waterskiing and kayaking, now or in the future. A stronger rule — 1,000 feet from shore — would better continue Vermont’s leadership in preserving the natural environment and growing traditional forms of outdoor recreation that its economy depends on.

Thierry Guerlain has owned a camp on Joe’s Pond for over a decade. According to Thierry, “On any given summer day, our shoreline is hit with countless artificial waves created by wake boats, waves that are significantly larger and more powerful than any waves Mother Nature can create on our small pond. 

“Some of these intentional waves crash up and over our docks, something we’ve never seen before. Our antique wooden runabout is buffeted and banged by waves arriving randomly from all directions. We now keep our boat pretty much out of the water.

“The plying back and forth of wake boats is irrevocably changing the essence of Joe’s Pond. What used to be a relatively quiet body of water with the occasional boat wake has become a veritable washing machine. Wake boats have fundamentally changed the nature of boating, sailing, swimming, paddle-boarding, kayaking, and shoreline enjoyment on our 405-acre pond.”

Four families ply wake boats on Joe’s Pond, while the other 200 attempt to enjoy canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, and small motorboats.

Joe’s Pond is but one of the many lakes that joined together under the umbrella of Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes in March 2021 to seek relief from the damage caused by wakes. Lake Raponda down south, Lake Fairlee in the Upper Valley, Lake Iroquois in Chittenden County, and many others that have already experienced the negative effects of wake surfing have approached the state for help. 

The Responsible Wakes group petitioned the Agency of Natural Resources to regulate these boats. The group’s members studied the hydrological sciences on the dissipation of wake energy in lake water. They collected testimony from the victims of wake surfing. They developed a following of a thousand Vermont lake residents, anglers, kayakers, swimmers, water skiers and summer camps that depended on calm, clear lakes for their survival. 

The Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes’ analysis of the scientific research resulted in recommending wake boats operate at least 1,000 feet from shore. 

"Wake boats, while they provide fun for a few,” says Tom Ward of Lake Fairlee, “crowd out and make the lake less fun and safe for many. A friend of mine was injured when a wake boat wave knocked her down as she was attempting to get into her kayak. During Lake Fairlee's busy Fourth of July weekend, a couple of kayaks were capsized by a wake boat; the wake boat operator didn't stop to help. Were they even aware of what they had caused? Someone from shore hopped into a boat to assist the kayakers. Luckily no one was hurt this time."

Lake Fairlee, Lake Iroquois and Joe’s Pond would be off-limits to wake boats under the rule proposed in the Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes petition to the Agency of Natural Resources. 

“We worked for a year and a half with the Department of Environmental Conservation to develop a wake boat rule based on science and consistent with the (department’s) responsibility to protect our lakes and ponds from abuse,” remarked Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes chair Jack Widness from Lake Raponda in Wilmington. “While we are very glad the DEC has determined wake boat rules are necessary, we would like to see them adopt a stronger rule that fulfills this responsibility.”

The manufacturers of wake boats — none of which are based in Vermont, thereby adding little to our economy — are resisting movements to regulate wake boats in states and municipalities across the nation. Once they got wind that a Vermont citizen group was leading an effort to protect Vermont’s lakes and ponds and traditional uses of these waters, their well-funded industry associations hired lobbyists in Montpelier to fight regulation. 

They oppose any meaningful rulemaking. The industry proposes a no-wake operating distance of only 200 feet. This is already the law in Vermont. This distance would continue to allow wake surfing on all the motorboat-friendly lakes in the state, large and small.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has planned a pre-rulemaking meeting on Feb. 15 in Greensboro and online. It is seeking feedback on the rule it has drafted. 

Responsible Wakes applauds DEC for its work, but would like to see the rule strengthened to keep wakeboats 1,000 feet from shore, which scientific research shows is the distance needed to dissipate the power of their wakes.

To learn more about wakeboats and their regulation, visit responsible wakes.org.


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