Jack Widness

Jack Widness of Wilmington stands with a sign he created to spread the word about a petition to manage the use of wake boats. 

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WILMINGTON — A statewide group is looking to mitigate the effects of wake boats in Vermont’s lakes and ponds by limiting where they can be used.

“This would be a protection of largely water quality issues but also safety issues,” said Jack Widness of Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes, a member of the Federation of Vermont Lakes and Ponds Board who lives on Lake Raponda in Wilmington.

People residing on other lakes in Vermont got in contact with Widness about the problem last March and it had been a topic discussed by the Federation of Vermont Lakes and Ponds Board he serves on.

On March 9, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation published a petition submitted by Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes asking for consideration to manage wake boats and their activities in lakes and ponds under state rules. The citizen group’s goal is “to protect public waters while allowing Vermonters to enjoy traditional family activities such as boating, water skiing, paddling, sailing, fishing, and swimming while also continuing to enjoy wake-enhanced sports in appropriate venues,” states a news release from the citizen group.

The petition calls for wake boats for wakeboarding and wakesurfing to be permitted only in areas where the distance from shore is greater than 1,000 feet, the wake depth is greater than 20 feet, and the area of the water body is more than 60 contiguous acres.

Widness said if the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources thinks the proposed rule is worthy of consideration, it will go to a public comment period where public meetings will be held to get feedback before the agency makes a final decision. Having talked with neighbors and other residents in Wilmington, he described finding a lot of support for the project.

A successful petition brought to the state years ago resulted in making the use of jet skis or personal watercraft no longer allowed on lakes smaller than 300 acres, Widness said.

Lake Raponda is about 121 acres, by Widness’ estimate, making it too small for use of jet skis or personal watercraft. To limit invasive species entering the waterway, the lake also has a greeter program to inspect boats and educate people about proper boat cleaning methods.

Wake boats differ from water ski boats and other boats. They go much slower and are heavily weighted in the back to create large wakes so a person can surf behind without a rope, Widness said, estimating their wakes can be 2 to 4 feet high.

Widness said with their propellers projected downward, wake boats can disturb the bottom of the lake more, affecting bugs, algae and other organisms. He also worries about the boats potentially transporting invasive aquatic species from one lake to another.

“At the end of the day, or whenever they leave the lake, water must be pumped out in preparation for transport,” he said, noting that otherwise the wake boats are too heavy to be transported on a boat trailer. “The problem is that their tanks cannot be fully emptied. Consequently, larvae of invasive species like zebra mussels or fragments of invasive water plants like milfoil may be present in the residual water and transported to another lake.”

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Widness said the enclosed design of ballast tanks on the wake boats won’t allow for the visual inspection of the ballast tank interiors, making local inspection programs like the one at Lake Raponda ineffective in determining whether they’re bringing in invasive plants and animals.

“The state spends thousands of dollars annually to prevent this from happening, yet this can happen without the possibility of knowing it because of this inspection problem,” he said.

Also of concern is the shoreline, where loons and sediment might be located, in addition to other watercraft and people. Widness said the wakes can lead to damage to boats or docks, and knock people over, especially young children and the elderly.

“If you move these boats out to much deeper water,” he said, “you can largely mitigate a lot of those problems.”

In appendices for the petition, Ted Blackburn reported an incident occurring at his dock on Lake Raponda over the summer.

“The waves produced by the boat were ferocious and rocked and bounced my boat (small Boston Whaler) and my dock,” Blackburn wrote. “The wave action was so strong it pulled one of my pilings out and threatened the dock with my boat. I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t been there to replace the piling.”

Blackburn called wake boats “inappropriate for small lakes.”

“I no longer kayak with my dog due to a fear of being tipped over by a wake boat,” Laura Winter of Wilmington wrote, referring to Lake Raponda. “The pleasure of a few are limiting the pleasure of many.”

Jeffrey Weinstein of Wilmington shared a photo of erosive damage to his property on Lake Raponda from 2019.

“Here on our small lake, we have seen first-hand the incredible problem these boats pose to our lake, waterfront and property,” Weinstein wrote. “At times I had to literally hold on to my boat while it sat at our dock and got rocked and slammed into the sides. I’ve watched wakes hit our shore and wash earth and rock back into the lake water.”