Home Commentary Opinion If Loons Could Talk: Wake Boat Hearing Coming Soon

If Loons Could Talk: Wake Boat Hearing Coming Soon

trace tail of speed boat on water surface in the sea, travel summer concept.
I heard a half-dozen loons singing in syncopated chorus the other evening. It was a thrilling, spine-chilling sound that captures the essence of summer on a Vermont lake. 

Loons can’t talk. But if you care about quiet and clean waters, now’s the time to speak up.

On Aug. 1, the state will hold its first public hearing, in Montpelier, on a proposal to regulate wake boats, a craft designed to plow through the water and leave a large wake for surfing. An online hearing will be held Aug. 3. To testify at either you have to sign up starting July 10, or you can submit written comments.

I’ll be blunt. For me, wake boats are almost too easy to dislike. I see them as symbolizing so much that is wrong and shortsighted about our overly consumptive, self-centered society.  

I know that sounds extreme, but hear me out. 

These powerful craft, propelled by 400-500 horsepower motors, are designed to generate three-to-four-foot waves for surfing without a tow rope. The boats are often equipped with loudspeakers to boom out music for the surfers to enjoy above the engine noise. Forget hearing the wild wail of those loons. Forget about the loons too: the big waves crashing on shorelines could easily swamp loon nests just inches above the water line. Nests will fail.

The boats’ propellers aim down, so their egg-beater action stirs lake sediment to 20 feet deep, releasing phosphorus stored on the lake bottom. This could worsen a pollution problem we spend millions of dollars a year trying to fix. Burlington’s beaches are often closed due to toxic cyanobacteria blooms, fueled, by you guessed it, phosphorus. The Health Department’s algae tracker also shows recent outbreaks on Joe’s Pond in Danville, where wake boats have stirred controversy along with the sediment. 

These noisy, polluting thrill craft, spewing hydrocarbons in an era of climate change, seem to me the very epitome of environmental arrogance. 

But as a former journalist plagued by leftover professional ambivalence, I know there’s always another side. Surfing is a blast. Riding a consistent wave anytime you launch has to be a big plus. 

On the fun side of wake surfing, listen to Kim Mackey, a doctor from Wisconsin, who showed up in February to speak out at a wake boat hearing in Greensboro. He told the crowd that he and his friends love riding the waves behind his boat. But he only uses it on a 9,700-acre lake in Wisconsin. He doesn’t bring it to his lakeside property in the Northeast Kingdom, where the lakes are just too small for the “washing machine” churn the machines leave behind.

“Where these boats are used, it will require great regulation and enforcement,” said Mackey.

Vermont has only a handful of inland lakes over 1,000 acres in size. The rule, as proposed, would permit wake boats on 31 inland lakes, including 393-acre Joe’s Pond, where state Secretary of Commerce Lindsay Kurrle operates her wake boat.

That’s where we find ourselves this summer. The state says its draft rules are the strictest in the country. In fact, they don’t go far enough.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation rule would limit wake boats to areas of 50 contiguous acres, 500 feet from shore or more and in depths of 20 feet or greater.

The rule is substantially similar to one requested by a citizens group, called Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes, with one huge exception. The RWVL proposal would require a 1,000-foot buffer from shore, and would thus limit wake boats to 16 lakes in Vermont. (The state can’t regulate the boats in the seven Connecticut River reservoirs or on Lakes Memphremagog and Champlain because they straddle state or international borders.)

The 1,000 feet limit is a good first step, but I think wake boats should be outright banned. Extreme? I don’t think so. Vermont was the first state to ban billboards. It’s time again for similar visionary environmental leadership. 

Remember, the water belongs to everyone, held in “public trust” for all to use. But the state’s draft rule means our public waters would be hogged by the few at the expense of the many. 

The kayaker who wants to experience a quiet afternoon paddling across a lake is likely to turn back in the face of a mini mid-lake tsunami. An angler looking for rising fish won’t cast into that washing machine churn. A mom teaching her kid to sail will have to find a breeze close to shore. The rule effectively confines the majority of lake users to shoreline areas, where the best angling, sailing, or paddling may not be found.  

The state’s mandate, according to the use of public waters rule, is to “ensure that the natural values of the public waters are fully protected.”

To me, that means not allowing more damage to lakes that are already under many environmental threats. 

The state estimates that about 100 wake boats are currently used in Vermont. Those users are backed by an industry that since 2022 paid lobbyists $30,901 to kill or weaken regulation.

Loons can’t lobby. Paddlers, anglers, and other lovers of quiet waters aren’t paying to sow influence in the Statehouse. But we do have the numbers. Please make your voices heard at the upcoming hearings.

To sign up for the hearings or to provide written comment, go to: https://dec.vermont.gov/watershed/lakes-ponds/rulemaking.