MLR Pursues Long Term Strategy to Address Wake Surfing Impacts

The Problem

Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates (MLR) received the first email from a member regarding the impacts of wake surfing in 2019. By the summer of 2020 more members were telling us the large, powerful wakes generated by wake surfing boats were eroding shorelines, knocking people from pontoon or fishing boats, swamping canoes, kayaks and paddle boards, damaging docks, lifts and other shoreline infrastructure, destroying aquatic plants and disturbing lake bed sediments.

It was clear that MLR needed to take action.

MLR reached out to a broad cross-sector base of partners to define the problem and develop a strategy to address that problem. We met with some of the MLR members who had written to us to alert us of the problems wake surfing was creating.

We met with boating industry members, marina owners, law enforcement, anti-wake surfing advocates, legislators, DNR, angling groups, and others. We studied other historical public policy efforts with a similar dynamic to the wake surfing issue, such as 4-wheelers, jet skis and snow machines back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. 

As an advocacy organization, MLR must choose between two opposing strategies: 1) pour our energies into fighting against threats like wake surfing, or, 2) using our resources  to advocate for healthy lakes and rivers. The latter not only builds momentum by fostering collaboration and attracting diverse support but also drives more meaningful and lasting change. 

Our mission is clear: to develop and promote responsible boating practices that increase public safety, protect water resources, support local economies dependent on those resources, and reduce user conflicts.

We, with partners, developed and began pursuing a strategy to, 1) Support independent peer reviewed science into wake and prop thrust dynamics, 2) pass a boaters education and certification requirement, 3) use the independent, peer reviewed science to develop best practices that can be taught in the education requirement of watercraft operators certification program.

During the 2018 legislative session, the National Marine Manufacturing Association (NMMA) presented an industry-commissioned study suggesting that wake surfing, when done at least 200 feet from shore, had minimal impact on shoreline erosion and aquatic ecosystems. MLR and our partners lobbied against proposed bills based solely on this study, emphasizing the importance of independent, peer-reviewed scientific research into wake and prop thrust dynamics. We advocated for a deeper understanding of the impacts of boating on lake ecology. We successfully argued that one industry-commissioned study was insufficient to inform long-term public policy decisions. After all he who pays the fiddler gets to call the tune.

Wake surfing advocates dismissed the stories from shoreline owners, lake service providers, anglers and others as anecdotal. Some claimed that shoreline erosion was due to owners that had removed trees, shrubs and deep rooted native plants from the shoreline. The injuries they ascribed to poor boating practice.

MLR reached out to researchers who study fluid dynamics at the Saint Anthony Falls Lab, SAFL in Minneapolis to see what research existed. They noted that there was very little research into the impacts of boating (wakes and prop thrust energy) on lake ecology. With over 800,000 registered watercraft in Minnesota, they saw a public good in asking these questions. There is a real need to develop boating practices that will reduce negative impacts.

Scientists at SAFL recognized the public good of understanding both wake dynamics, from a variety of watercraft, and prop thrust on lake ecology. They proposed a three phase project; 1) Describe the height, energy and dynamics of boat wakes, 2) describe the depth, intensity and characteristics of prop thrust from boats, 3) Discover the broad ecological impacts of wakes and prop thrust on lake ecology.

MLR and our partners embarked on a crowdfunding campaign that drew contributions from across the country to undertake Phase One. At the same time, MLR worked to support grant applications at the Minnesota Legislature. We were successful and In 2023 no crowdfunding was necessary – the Minnesota Legislature provided $450,000 to fund phases two and three using Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars.

MLR focuses our energy and resources fighting FOR clean water instead of AGAINST impairments. 

The first builds political capital, the second expends it.

Local Action is Constructive

While statewide wakesurfing regulations pose challenges, Minnesota statutes empower local governments to pass  local ordinances to protect their local water resources. A good example is Caribou Lake in Cook County. 

The Caribou Lake Property Owners Association became concerned over wakesurfing’s impact on the narrow, shallow lake. In addition, its  pristine northern wilderness setting, nestled four miles north of Lutsen, makes it particularly vulnerable to wakesurfing impacts. The lake association reached out to others in the community and built support for the idea that the lake required special considerations. Using Phase One of the SAFL study, this grass roots base convinced Cook County Commissioners of the need, leading to unanimous County Commissioners’ approval of a wakesurfing ban. Final approval for the local ordinance is pending from the MN DNR. 

MLR actively supports the association’s efforts to safeguard this unique lake. By amplifying local voices and advocating for their concerns, MLR underscores the importance of grassroots initiatives in protecting cherished local waterways like Caribou Lake, where citizens have a tangible stake in the outcome.

Statewide Regulation Poses Problems

Wake surfing represents a huge profit center for the boating industry and provides many jobs for Minnesotans. The industry associations related to boating have extensive resources for lobbying and public relations. There are many lake association members that own wake surfing watercraft and the issue threatens to divide some lake associations.

Some passionate shoreline owners, distressed at wake surfing impacts, have formed new organizations outside their lake associations to advocate against wake surfing. They are urging legislators and other policy makers to pass regulations on wake surfing. There are significant difficulties with this strategy:

  • Some lake association have been divided by proposed statewide regulations.
  • County attorneys find it hard to justify spending limited resources to prioritize prosecuting $150 tickets against people who can afford a $350k boat and spend $100 an hour for fuel,
  • Law enforcement partners recognize that obtaining evidence of a violation is complicated (how to prove depth or distance from shore reliably in court),
  • Some of these “regulate now” groups are pushing for 600 feet from shore rules. If successful, about 94% of Minnesota’s lakes would be illegal to wake surfing. The remaining percentage, including Bay Lake, Gull Lake, and Minnetonka, would find themselves hosting ALL of MN’s wake surfers,
  • A restrictive distance from shore or depth of operation regulation will generate significant, ongoing backlash. This would require large, ongoing lobbying costs to defend year after year.

MLR and Our Partners Authentically Work to Protect Lakes and Rivers

One of the arguments pro-wake surfing interests make is that lake home and cabin owners do not care for water quality, that “water quality” is a strawman argument to shut wakesurfing off of “their” lakes. They point to owners that remove all shoreline vegetation and have Kentucky bluegrass down to the water. It is a powerful argument since highly developed shorelines (cleared of trees, shrubs and native plants or armored with rip rap or sea walls) allow significant amounts of nutrients to enter the lake and are far more susceptible to wake driven erosion. 

Lake Advocates Protect Natural Shorelines

MLR and many of our lake association partners work authentically to protect and restore natural shorelines and near shore aquatic habitats through our Lake Steward program. 

A statewide Natural Shoreline Partnership, chaired by MLR Executive Director Jeff Forester, has convened, including the Tribes, DNR, MPCA, BSWR, MN Extension Services, County Resource managers, other conservation non-profits and some lake association leaders. The Natural Shoreline Partnership has released a white paper on the shoreline  issue and has spoken at the Legislative Water Committee, Clean Water Council, BWSR Academy and a variety of lake associations and other public meetings. MLR has partnered with watershed districts, soil and water conservation districts and county land management offices for shoreline restoration, education and outreach grants.

Today MLR is widely recognized as a state leader in efforts to protect and restore natural shorelines. MLR does this work because natural shorelines are critical to protecting the cultural, economic and ecological benefits of our shared, public aquatic ecosystems. We promote boating practices that increase public safety, protect water resources, support local economies dependent on those resources, and reduce user conflicts.

MLR works FOR clean water.

MLR and the coalition working on this issue believe that pushing regulation at this point will make it far more difficult to address the impacts of wake surfing on lake ecology and liveability long term:

  • Political controversy favors the status quo,
  • Passing regulations first, before science and education, requires enormous political resources and expense – hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, 
  • Regulations, without broad public support (again with the education) are often under enforced or not enforced. A prime example are current shoreline minimum standards which have not prevented declines in water quality due to poor shoreline development.

The push for regulation now is already delaying the development of boater training and making the process less transparent. It is complicating the work of researchers and threatens their independence. It is eroding legislative support (controversy always erodes legislative support),  It is benefiting the boating industry’s pursuit of the status quo.

Those advocating for regulation NOW are turning up the heat at exactly the moment it is best to turn it down. 

MLR does not support the effort to push wake surfing regulations at this time:

  • Pushing regulation before the science is done erodes credibility,
  • It threatens the independence and candor of researchers,
  • It creates controversy at exactly the point in time when building space for difficult conversations and negotiations of training materials is critical.

Developing public policy and political action requires patience and discipline. We must commit to the best, independent, peer reviewed science. We should advocate and lobby for clear and meaningful Best Practices to be developed. We should train and certify over 800,000 Minnesota boaters on the negative consequences of shoreline erosion and sediment reanimation to lake ecology, and the steps they can take to prevent these negative impacts.

If problems still exist after that, THEN we push for regulations to address those problems. By then we will have a much larger base of public support, better science and the good will of legislators, policy makers, agency people and the public. We will have a chance to be successful. 

MLR invites our lake association partners to put their energies and investments into supporting MLR’s work to build a base of support for lake science, for clean water, shoreline restoration, and boater education. I invite you to join MLR’s work FOR clean water instead of AGAINST the boating industry.