Residents of small Willamette River communities 20 miles south of Portland say they've identified weapons of marine destruction that have accelerated erosion, damaging both their properties and salmon habitats.
The WMDs are actually WEDs, or wake enhancement devices, that can pump up to 2,000 pounds of water to generate waves up to 3 feet high for wakeboarders.
"The advent of this kind of boat and its impact on the upper Willamette is an ecological disaster," says Larry Michel, a Wilsonville riverfront homeowner.
In 2004, Michel lost a 36-foot-long, 32-foot-wide and 4-foot-deep section of riverbank to erosion. A fix was appraised at $42,000. Instead, Michel spent 80 hours and $1,125 on a DIY job involving a backhoe, plants and netting that he says will stall erosion for four years at best.
Fellow riverfront homeowner Mike McGuire traces increased erosion to 2000, about the time WEDs began to appear. Since then, about 50 homeowners from Wilsonville, West Linn and Aurora have complained to the Oregon State Marine Board about damage to their properties as well as to the river's ecosystem. They say salmon suffer because wake-caused erosion increases silt, which in turn increases water temperature.
Instead of banning WEDs, as many
homeowners would like, the marine board has sought to educate wakeboard boat operators to use the middle of the Willamette instead of hugging the shoreline. Michel says that request isn't realistic, with four boats going each way on a narrow, 500-foot-wide strip of river.
On March 6, the board has scheduled a demonstration in the Newberg Pool that may lead to new regulations. The demo will test how wakeboarding boats with—and without—WEDs generate wakes and how far the wakes travel. Landowners claim wakes don't dissipate much as they travel across the channel. And wakeboarders claim only the wake shape is changed by WEDs.
Randy Henry, the board's operations policy analyst, says large boat wakes do contribute to undercutting banks, but thinks "there are other forces at play," such as land development.
While some homeowners want a wakeboarding ban, Michel wants the board to limit wake sizes on the Willamette to 10 inches. That can be accomplished by turning off WEDs and limiting boat size to under 22 feet. These are the same regulations that privately governed Lake Oswego has adopted to curb erosion.
Homeowners are skeptical the board will take any strong regulatory action because two of the five board members have ties to the boating industry. Board member Deborah McQueen used to own a boat dealership and now is a sales representative for fishing products. Another board member, Trey Carskadon, does advertising and marketing work for Stevens Marine, a boat dealer in Tigard and Milwaukie.
Henry says the board is objective, noting the other three members include a retired biology teacher, a retired legislator and a former mayor.
And McQueen believes she can be unbiased, telling WW, "We have been gravely interested in resolving this problem."
McQueen says she will recuse herself from a decision if needed, though she adds, "All boats can make wake with very little effort, whether they have [WEDs] or not."
Travis Williams, executive director of environmental watchdog Willamette Riverkeeper, says the marine board has been fair so far. But while he says riverbank erosion happens naturally, the constant motion from high, stacked boat wakes is "not natural," leading over time to banks sloughing into the river at an accelerated rate.
Some wakeboarders say pushback by
homeowners is a typical generational divide, in this case between young boarders and old fogies.
"It may accelerate the damage that is already occurring, but I would say [the riverfront homeowners] probably dislike us more than just the erosion," says wakeboarder Ryan Barmore, 20.
Michel denies any bias. "Sure, their stereos in their boats are really loud and they're playing rap—there's f-this and f-that as they go by your house," Michel said. "But a social issue doesn't erode banks and produce big wakes."
The April 2007 issue of
magazine named the Willamette River as one of the top three waterways for wakeboarding.