Wakeboats now regulated in Vermont; WI overwhelmingly favors restrictions…

After a nearly two-year heated debate, rules restricting wakeboats on Vermont waterways are now in effect. As of April 15th, a wake boat can only operate in a wake sports zone: an area of at least 50 acres, at least 20 feet deep, 200 feet wide and 500 feet from shore.

Here in Wisconsin, participants in the annual poll by the Wisconsin Conservation Congress overwhelmingly supported statewide restrictions on wakeboats and the regulation of ballasted wakesports. Responses to the wake related questions were as follows:

Would you support the WCC and legislature creating a new statute that prohibits the use of wake boat ballast systems on Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers?

  • YES – 10,608 (66%)
  • NO – 4,193 (26%)
  • NO OPINION – 1,370 (8%)
  • The question passed in all 72 counties

Would you support regulations by DNR to require that all ballast systems used in boats shall have a reasonable practical means of inspecting the system to confirm that no water is retained in the system (tanks, piping, valves, etc.)?

  • YES – 10,016 (63%)
  • NO – 4,228 (26%)
  • NO OPINION – 1,771 (11%)
  • The question passed in 71 of 72 counties

Would you support the WCC and legislature modifying existing statutes to prohibit generation of intentionally magnified wakes for wake surfing through the use of ballast, design features, operational procedures or any other means on lakes smaller than 1500 acres and less than 20 feet deep and maintain a distance from shore and other lake users of 700 feet?

  • YES – 10,895 (68%)
  • NO – 3,804 (24%)
  • NO OPINION – 1,288 (8%)
  • The question passed in all 72 counties

A more in-depth article on the WCC results by Wisconsin Lakes may be found here.

General interest

Wake Boats and Lakes

New Report from Wisconsin’s Green Fire

Wisconsin’s Green Fire (WGF) released a new report on the effects of wake boats on Wisconsin lakes. The increasing popularity of wake boats on inland lakes has prompted widespread and vocal criticism of the effects that these specially designed boats have on ecosystem health. Critics are demanding local and state regulations to curtail use of the wake boats.

WGF’s report “The Effects of Wake Boats on Lake Ecosystem Health: A Literature Review,” compiles findings from over 175 scientific studies in several U.S. states, documenting several kinds of negative effects from wake boats on lakes. Wake boats can spread aquatic invasive species, increase shoreline erosion, damage aquatic plants including manoomin (wild rice), worsen water quality due to re-suspension of sediments, and negatively impact birds and fish, particularly nesting loons and spawning fish. 

Author of the report, David A. Ortiz, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin—Madison says, “This project bridges scientific research and best practices on how wake boat use can be part of a long-term sustainability plan for Wisconsin lakes.” 

This WGF report provides the Wisconsin Legislature and local units of government with several pro-conservation recommendations that support recreational uses of lakes while protecting the health of lake ecosystems. 

Among those recommendations: 

  • Wake boating should only be done on lakes with at least 40 contiguous acres of open water where the entire contiguous area is greater than 20 feet deep and more than 600 feet from any shoreline. This does not mean 40-acre lakes—rather, it means limiting wake boat use to larger and deeper lakes where the impacts on shorelines, aquatic habitats, and wildlife, can be minimized. 
  • To reduce the spread of invasive species which can easily survive in leftover ballast and bilge water on wake boats, wake boat owners should hot pressure wash the boat or treat with bleach and let dry for at least 4 days before using their boats on different water bodies. 
  • Wisconsin’s Green Fire also recommends online training on proper use and risks of wake boats, along with informational signs at waterways. 

Wisconsin is not alone in dealing with controversy over wake boats. In January 2024, Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources approved a rule that prohibits wake boat use on lakes less than 50 contiguous acres and those less than 20 feet deep. Wake boats in that state cannot operate less than 500 feet from any shore. The WGF report provides details on policies that states and communities around the U.S. and abroad have taken to protect lakes from negative impacts of wake boats.  


This infographic above summarizes the report (download a PDF version of the infographic here). Both the infographic and full report are free to download and share with attribution to David A. Ortiz and Wisconsin’s Green Fire.


A compelling new wakesports proposal

An action alert from our partner organization, Wisconsin Lakes

Sen. André Jacque (R-DePere) entered the wakesports fray last week, releasing a proposal that would manage wakesports on Wisconsin waters under terms largely in line with those proposed in recent popular Wisconsin Conservation Congress resolutions. The proposal is being circulated among legislators looking for co-sponsors with a deadline of December 14.   Wisconsin Lakes is in support of this effort, with the one caveat noted below. The bill: Prohibits enhanced wakes on lakes smaller than 1500 acres, Prohibits enhanced wakes within 700 feet of shore or from any boat swimmer, or other individual using the water on lakes 1500 acres or larger, Preserves local authority to enact ordinances stricter than these provisions. Due to an unintended consequence of its language, the bill would limit an existing right to sue a boater for personal injury to only cases where the injury was caused by enhanced wakes (click “read more from WI Lakes” below for a full explanation).  While Wisconsin Lakes is not endorsing the bill’s current language in full because of this issue, we believe a change is in the works that will take care of it and allow us to offer our full support.  We recommend you encourage your legislators to support the terms of this bill while asking for the change of language to preserve the general right to sue reckless boaters (explained above), and if appropriate for them, to co–sponsor the legislation.  

Read the proposal (Keep in mind that until it is introduced, the language will likely change and the author could decide not to introduce it all) 

How to contact your legislator 

AB656/SB680 UPDATE – HEARINGS AHEAD?   Sen. Jacque’s proposal detailed above is diametrically opposed to AB656/SB680 which would only prohibit wakesports within 200 feet of shore and prohibits local governments from enacting anything stronger (while allowing them to be less restrictive). These bills are currently sitting in their assigned legislative committees, which could come as early as next week. You can count on Wisconsin Lakes for any updates just as soon as we get them.


Observations from recent wakesurfing bill listening sessions

VCLRA board member Keith Montgomery gives his observations of the November 13th public listening sessions held in Eagle River, Minocqua and Rhinelander. Representative Rob Swearingen and Senator Mary Felzkowski drafted wakesurfing legislation, as reported in our earlier posts, which will allow wake boats to operate at 200 feet from shore on lakes greater than 50 acres. Moreover, the bill will include a provision to prohibit any municipality from passing local regulations that exceed the above limits.

I attended the Eagle River and Rhinelander listening sessions. I could not get into the Minocqua session, it was so packed. All sessions were standing room only! I managed to get a comment in at the Rhinelander session.

Representative Swearingen and Senator Felzkowski pointed out that there is currently no regulation, which is not a good situation. If we do not get a bill this year, it will be two years before we get anything (next year is an election year). They said they were open to changes in the bill.

Swearingen and Felzkowski presented the proposed bill as having continuity with the past — regulate by lake size and distance from shore (50 acres and 200 ft.). I pointed out that wakeboats are a radical new technology that cannot be compared to anything in the past — ski boats and personal water craft (PWC). And, when PWC regulation was introduced, the distance from shore was doubled from 100 to 200 ft — so why not double it again to 400 ft., at least? Based on my observing a wakeboat travelling near the shore, I also suggested there is no such thing as “slow no wake” if a wakeboat is stern down with ballast. Wakeboats must be on plane in the near shore.

Swearingen and Felzkowski said the DNR has told them they will not (not feasible?) enforce a depth restriction. Depths are too variable. I pointed out at a smart IT student could take digital maps and demarcate areas easily enough. But as we talked about at the 2023 six-county meeting in July, the DNR is woefully understaffed to deal with complaints and reports.

Other comments were about the environmental cost of shoreline damage and the economic cost to property owners in preventing damage to their property with rip-rap; economic damage through loss of property values on disturbed lakes; loss of fishing; AIS transport; safety issues; lake bottom damage and damage to fishing grounds; plus the fact that we are talking 4% of [wakeboat] lake users compared to the interests of the other 96% of lake users represented in the room. There were few voices in support of the proposed bill. No one spoke from the industry, although they might have been in attendance. The interest and attendance was impressive.

“Safety issues” — it was pointed out that rafts are permitted out to 200 ft provided they do not interfere with navigation in channels and such. This might be safety issue with kids on rafts.

For some reason, the legislators let Fred Prehn open and then lead and close the Q & A at Eagle River and Minocqua (he was not at the Rhinelander session). He has started the “Lakes at State” organization (https://www.lakesatstake.org/ ). He has impeccable Republican credentials. He said that 1500 acres had been suggested as a size limit, but that was too restrictive – 77 lakes – he thought 1200 acres would leave a sufficient number of lakes open. Felzkowski and Swearingen asked for sympathy for the pushback they will get if we go with 1500 acres. I wonder if Fred has some inside information on this. I’ll note that Fred is a full-time resident on Big Portage (586 acres).

Felzkowski and Swearingen say they have had serious issues getting committees to hear the bill – no one wants to deal with the pushback. Likely hearing(s) will be held in December to get a bill done.

If you want to get updates on the bill as it moves through the legislative process, go to https://legis.wisconsin.gov/ and select “Notification Service” and enter either “Senate Bill 680” or keyword “wakeboats”.


Wakesurfing regulators host public input sessions Nov. 13

Representative Rob Swearingen and Senator Mary Felzkowski, who have drafted wakesurfing legislation (Bill LRB-3518), as reported in our earlier posts, will be hosting listening sessions on Monday, Nov. 13 to hear input from the public. The proposed bill will allow wake boats to operate at 200 feet from shore on lakes greater than 50 acres. Moreover, the bill will include a provision to prohibit any municipality from passing local regulations that exceed the above limits.

The scheduled locations and times for the November 13th public listening sessions are:

  • Eagle River: 10-11 am, City Hall, 525 E Maple St
  • Minocqua: 1-2 pm, City Hall, 415 Menominee St
  • Rhinelander: 3-4 pm, Public Library, 106 N Stevens St

Anyone interested in providing input or learning more about the draft wakeboat legislation is urged to attend one of the Nov. 13 listening sessions.

If you cannot make the sessions, here is the contact information for the bill’s sponsors: Sen.Felzkowski@legis.wisconsin.gov and Rep.Swearingen@legis.wisconsin.gov. Also, Sen. Felzkowski has issued a statement on the draft bill (see below) with instructions how to learn of public hearing opportunities in the future.

Other resources:


Rushed legislation on wakeboats under consideration

State-wide legislation regulating wakesurfing with simply a 200-foot minimum distance from shore criterion for wake boats is under consideration. This would be an attempt to preempt research and discussion by all stakeholders, which has been underway here in Wisconsin and in several other states. As we have reported in several articles on our website, VCLRA.org, these are very powerful boats that produce energetic waves as well as significant downward thrust. As such, wake boats can have significant impact on lake health and public safety if these considerations are not incorporated in legislation to set appropriate minimum depth of lake, minimum distance from shore and minimum lake size for wake surfing. We encourage you to contact your elected official to ensure any wake boat legislation is not rushed through without informed discussion from all stakeholders.


2023 Six-County Lakes and Rivers Meeting Video

View the video of the 2023 Northwoods Six-County Lakes and Rivers Meeting, which featured a balance of learning and discussion of key issues affecting our natural waters.

The well-attended event for Northwoods counties was held on July 14, 2023 at Nicolet College in Rhinelander and is jointly sponsored by the Oneida County Lakes and Rivers Association (www.oclra.org) and the Vilas County Lakes and Rivers Association (www.vclra.org). In addition to expert briefings on timely topics and exhibits from educational, nonprofit, and government organizations, the event featured a moderated panel to discuss the law enforcement challenges stemming from enhanced wake boats and other watercrafts, short-term vacation rentals issues, zoning violations and other areas that impact the health and enjoyment of our Northwoods lakes and rivers.

Enjoy the video! Hope to see you next year.

General interest

2023 VCLRA Summer Newsletter

Our latest newsletter is available online (print edition out soon). Read about:

  • Six-county workshop/annual meeting on July 14th featuring an expert panel on law-enforcement challenges affecting the health and enjoyment of our increasingly-crowded lakes and rivers;
  • Update on wake boat resolutions;
  • Free workshops on new toolbox to help protect and improve your lake
  • VCLRA scholarships awarded to two area high school seniors;
  • Spiny water fleas;
  • Permanent Shoreland Protection & Workshop on June 26th
  • Northwoods LIGHTS OUT! campaign;
  • and more!