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Our Lakes: High lake levels, wake concerns addressed

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Lake water levels and wake are two topics local law enforcement addressed recently at a meeting of the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association held at the Crosslake Community Center.

WAPOA president Tom Watson said these two items have been in discussion since two years ago when historic rainfall caused docks and lawn furniture to float out into the lakes. Watson said this year he has had to raise his dock twice because of rising water levels.

Watson said residents are starting to worry about damage to property because of the water levels and wake from watercraft, especially considering the $100,000 WAPOA and residents recently been spent on shoreline restoration.

Watson also said he is worried about the impact of wake on shoreline runoff and water quality.

Chelsey Best, Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, and Crow Wing County Sgt. DJ Downie addressed issues and questions Watson fielded regarding possible damage caused by wake during high water levels.

Downie said the sheriff's office receives requests for a no-wake declaration or permanent no-wake zone from many lake residents fairly regularly, often in response to "wave machine" boats or other fast-moving vehicles, but sometimes the requests come from lake groups like WAPOA or from municipalities.

Downie said the sheriff is hesitant to put out wake restrictions in these circumstances, noting the county has only done so once, several years ago. He said that while temporary wake restrictions could be imposed in times of high water levels, there is no way to stop the wind and turbulent weather that can also stir up large waves and wake and cause the same type of damage.

A resident who pays taxes for a lake property and spends a large sum of money on a fast boat, and is then told they cannot tow a wakeboard or similar towable because of high water, may consider this unfair, especially given that the temporary restrictions may do nothing to prevent shore damage from natural wave sources. Downie also said it can be difficult to enforce no-wake restrictions using the county's limited staffing.

Residents, however, are encouraged to call in violations of current wake laws and laws that relate to unsafe or damaging operation of a watercraft. Personal watercraft, for example, are required to operate at slow, no-wake speeds within 150 feet of shorelines or virtually anything in the water. All other watercraft are required to operate in a safe manner, which can and does sometimes include responsible speed limitations.

Operating a watercraft in a way that risks a person's safety or damages property, for example, is illegal even if causing wake itself is not regulated. Safety regulations can be applied fairly broadly in a way that sometimes can deter excessive wake.

Best gave the 16 audience members an update on boating restrictions. Though many regulations have not changed, there are some new restrictions that have come into law, including Sophia's Law, which went into effect May 1. This law regulates carbon monoxide detector requirements on boats.

According to Sophia's Law, motorboats with an enclosed compartment designed with sleeping accommodations and a galley area with a sink and a toilet are required to have approved marine carbon monoxide detectors. Though boats with occupancy compartments that do not meet these requirements are not required to have detectors, it is highly recommended.

Another new law enacted Aug. 1 is Little Alan's Law, which bans anyone with a drunken driving conviction in any vehicle from operating off-road vehicles and watercraft for one year.

Best also reminded those present of existing laws, including:

• Children under 10 and personal watercraft occupants are required to wear fitting life jackets.

• All occupants of a boat must have readily accessible, wearable life jackets that fit properly.

• No boats, docks, floats or other items may obstruct normal navigation.

• No gunwale or transom riding is allowed.

• Chasing or harassing wildlife is forbidden.

• Boaters must not exceed maximum capacities for occupancy either in weight or number of people.

• Boat operators must be below the legal limit of .08 blood alcohol limit, though there may be open containers on the boat. Additional restrictions may apply depending on the age of passengers on board and past convictions.

• Altered exhaust systems on watercraft are illegal. There is also a decibel limit on engine noise, meaning damaged exhaust systems may also be illegal. There is, however, no restriction on music.

• Boats operating at night must have unobstructed navigation lights that meet DNR requirements. If accessory lights make it difficult to determine direction of travel, then they are illegal. Likewise, docking lights are for docking only as they may obstruct navigation lights.

• Accidents on the water must be reported to 911 if there is damage of $2,000 or more, any injury requiring medical attention beyond first aid or a fatality. Passing motorists are also required to stop and assist victims safely, if possible.

Downie said it is possible in the future that wake boarders and wave machine operators may face increased regulations statewide much like personal watercraft, which are highly regulated, if too many complaints are received.