Every summer, Sue Jones hears the complaints from local canoeists and kayakers: Madison-area lakes are too crowded; the paddlers are getting pushed around on the waters, and something needs to be done.
But Jones, watershed management coordinator for Dane County's Office of Lakes and Watersheds, knows there's not much chance of that. When it comes to environmental and natural resource issues, she says, people in Dane County are generally concerned and active.
"But nothing like the intensity and passion and numbers of people who turn out for public hearings on anything that might mean a change in boating regulations," says Jones, whose agency has the lion's share of regulatory control over county waters.
"It's just incredible. What tends to come out with any kind of regulation, but especially with boating, is, 'This change is the slippery slope that will lead to more changes, changes that are unacceptable.'"
Not long ago, Squaw Bay on Lake Monona was the focus of calls for regulatory change. A high-traffic area, Squaw Bay is a bottleneck where boaters congregate before entering the Yahara River on their way south to Upper Mud Lake and Lake Waubesa.
In 2005, a Dane County task force looked into concerns that the boats here were making too much noise, as well as potentially damaging the shallow bay bottom and causing shoreline erosion. The original proposal, introduced by three County Board supervisors, would have made the entire Squaw Bay area, approximately 115 acres, a "slow-no-wake" zone.
But there was strong opposition from boaters, and the proposal was spiked. Instead, says Jones, the county last year established "a marked channel, with blue and green buoys," with the goal of slowing boaters down. The channel has only been in place for one summer - too early to tell if it solved any of the bay's problems.
The number of boats in Wisconsin has risen dramatically through the years. In 1960, the state had 250,000 registered boats. By 1990, that number had soared to a half million boats. Now there are two-thirds of a million.
Consider Lake Ripley in Jefferson County. "When we bought our first pontoon [27 years ago], we were the third pontoon on the lake," says John Molinaro, a longtime lake resident and president of the Wisconsin Association of Lakes. "Right now, we have probably over 100 pontoons on the lake."
Lake Ripley, is "a couple hours from Chicago, less than an hour from Madison, and less than an hour from Milwaukee," says Molinaro. "Jefferson County, in general, is what the DNR calls 'the hole in the doughnut,' because we have over 50% of the state's population within an hour's drive."
At the same time, "People should have access to the lake, especially people who don't have riparian rights - they should be able to get onto the lakes of Wisconsin. The water in the state of Wisconsin is owned by the public, so everybody should have the right to use those lakes."
That's the ideal, anyway. But the sharp increase in recreational use has made attaining it more difficult.
Perception vs. reality
In 2005, Wisconsin had 639,139 registered boaters, the fifth-highest tally in the nation, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (see chart). The Great Lakes region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin) topped all other regions in 2005, with a whopping 3.4 million boat registrations.
But not everyone agrees that Wisconsin's lakes are too crowded.
"A lot of that is perception," says Bill Engfer, section chief of recreation safety and education for the state Department of Natural Resources. "For example, if you come from Illinois, where the waters are very crowded, very busy, and you come into southern Wisconsin - Lake Geneva, Dane County lakes, etc. - you'll probably say, 'These [lakes] don't feel crowded at all.'
"But you ask someone who lives in Lake Geneva or in Dane County, they're going to say, 'These lakes are extremely crowded.' Crowding is a personal perception. You can't quantify it."
"Overcrowded?" asks Steve Falter, when asked about Madison-area lakes. "They're hardly overcrowded."
Falter heads Capitol Water Trails, a group of concerned paddlers, landowners and watershed organizations dedicated to educating people about waterways and cleaning up Dane County rivers and streams.
"Now, if you're at James Madison Park on the Fourth of July or Memorial Day, it looks like a zoo out there on the lake," says Falter. "But I live across the street from Lake Monona, and 80% of the time there's no one out there."
There aren't a lot of numbers that quantify boat use in Dane County. The last recreational boat study was in 1995. Dane boat registrations have increased from 16,557 in 1975 to 29,017 in 2005. In recent years, between about 12,000 and 18,000 boats have passed through the Tenney locks annually.
There are anecdotes about crowded boat launches and inadequate parking. Says Jones, "I know people are concerned about the carrying capacity of the lakes."
Jeff Russell, a longtime sailor and powerboater on Madison-area lakes, thinks there's more capacity left to fill: "I've used the lakes for 25 years, and there's always been plenty of boats out there. Is it crowded? Well, there's a lot of room. Lake Mendota is a huge, huge lake."
But while Russell thinks lake use has remained more or less constant over the years, there is always tension among different kinds of users. "Some people want to sail, some people want to powerboat, some people want to paddle," he says. "And they're not always the most compatible activities, regardless of how crowded or uncrowded [the lakes] are."
Doug Bach spends a fair amount of time on Dane County lakes, usually paddling or sailing. An environmental engineer, Bach is also vice president of the Yahara Lakes Association. Bach agrees that holidays, hot summer weekends and special events like Rhythm & Booms put many watercraft on local lakes.
But "although these lakes see a lot of use, it's been that way for quite a while, and I don't really see that many conflicts compared to other lakes," says Bach. "That's not to say there aren't idiots who do dumb things with their boats. Alcohol's usually involved. But my sense is, the lakes have accommodated that [increased] use fairly well, and the vast majority of boaters are pretty respectful."
The news from Lake Ripley
Perhaps people in Madison are simply more accustomed to higher volumes of boat traffic. Or perhaps the lakes here have yet to see increases of the sort that stir concern, as they have in other places.
On Lake Ripley, over the last decade, locals have complained that there are too many boats. But what does "too many" mean? The Lake Ripley Management District decided to find out. It commissioned a study, coauthored by Molinaro and Paul Dearlove, district project manager.
During the summer of 2003, frequent surveys and counts were made of the number of boats on this 418-acre lake, as well as vehicles and trailers using the public boat ramp and marina. The counts were conducted during various times of the day, including "no-wake" hours, which on Lake Ripley are from 7:30 p.m. to 11 a.m.
As with most Wisconsin lakes, Ripley sees a variety of boating uses, from anglers and water-skiers to pleasure boaters, canoeists and jetski users. The study found that during peak periods - summer weekends and holidays - there were 24 boats, on average, operating on Lake Ripley during "wake" hours (ll a.m.-7 p.m.). During no-wake hours, an average of 9.2 boats were on the lake.
Two dozen boats may not sound like a lot. Yet it must be understood that for boating purposes, the lake is actually not 418 acres. If you remove the permanent slow-no-wake zone within 100 feet of the shoreline, the buffer zone around the swimming area, and the no-wake zones mandated by law around the lake's 167 piers and 19 stationary rafts, only 302 acres of Lake Ripley are actually open to boats.
The study applied this data to a formula developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and an analysis used to evaluate four Michigan lakes in 2001. Its conclusion? That Lake Ripley was 141% to 171% over its boating capacity on summer weekends and holidays, depending on various interpretations of "optimal boating densities."
"As a result," the study notes, "recreational safety and environmental quality are likely to be jeopardized absent any measures to manage overcrowding. If future problems are to be averted, it is incumbent upon local policymakers to devise effective and reasonably equitable regulatory mechanisms that balance the physical limitations of the resource with the demands of its users."
Assessing the damage
Though it notes the potential for environmental problems, the Lake Ripley study does not examine them. But considerable scientific work has been done on boating's environmental impact.
Several years ago, Tim Asplund, a DNR water resources management specialist, compiled much of the known research on boating and the environment, including some of his own work. The major areas of concern: water pollution, increased shoreline erosion, damage to aquatic plants, disturbance of fish and wildlife habitat, and sediment being pushed up into the water column.
Boating, especially intense boating, has been found to contribute to all of these impacts. But the longer-term implications are less clear.
Consider sediment being "resuspended," or pulled up off a lake bottom and into the water column by boats passing overhead. Generally, at a depth of about six feet, a boat's propeller can disturb the sediments below. In shallower water, that disturbance is magnified.
Numerous studies have looked at this resuspension. Asplund himself examined the issue at 10 lakes across Wisconsin in 1996. During times of heavy boating, large amounts of sediment were stirred up and water clarity decreased. Once the boating stopped, the sediments pretty much settled back onto lake bottoms.
Decreased water clarity can reduce growth in aquatic plants. But what's the impact of somewhat-decreased water clarity for a few days a week? No one really knows, Asplund admits.
Water pollution from boats is well-documented. Older, two-stroke motors disperse 25% to 30% of their fuel, unburned, right into the water. Most of the hydrocarbons found in fuel are very volatile and quickly break down or evaporate. Yet gas and oil also contain heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury, which can settle out of the fuel and enter a lake's sediments for years.
"Those [heavy metals] can be significant," says Asplund, "especially in concentrated areas like marinas and boat landings, where there can be some sediment toxicity from a lot of fuel dumped into the water."
One of the most detrimental impacts boats have is on aquatic plants. A propeller can quickly turn a weed bed into a chopped salad, trimming back existing plants and killing tiny plants just starting to grow. The resulting murkiness in the water column can further depress plant growth.
At Lake Ripley in 1997, Asplund and other DNR researchers set up four enclosures around aquatic plants in about three feet of water, right next to areas of high boat traffic. After three months, the enclosures were examined.
"It was pretty striking," says Asplund. "We had some aerial photos that documented the differences in plant growth, and it was like, 'Wow!'" The enclosed plants, protected from the scouring effect of boat traffic, grew two to three times more than other plants.
But Asplund is quick to note that boats are only one element in a larger lake dynamic. For example, lakes popular with boaters undoubtedly have a good deal of shoreline development. That development, plus nearby agriculture and other human activities, generates all sorts of runoff, affecting water quality and clarity, plant growth and fish reproduction.
Pinpointing the effect of boats on these lakes can be difficult to impossible, Asplund says, given these other factors.
Rules and regulations
So what can be done to minimize overcrowding and possible environmental impacts from heavy boat use? Let's start with what can't be done: Keep boats off lakes.
"At the local level, you have units of government, other than counties, able to set local boating ordinances," says Jeff Bode, section chief for the DNR's Lakes and Wetlands Department. "In other words, it could be a town or a village or a city adopting a boating ordinance."
And while local governmental units can give their authority to a local lake district or association, they are limited by state and federal law in the kinds of rules they can impose.
"For instance," says Bode, "you can't restrict any particular kind or type of boat, without good reason for it. You can't stop a boat from coming onto a lake. There's a right of navigation. The regulations are more toward the ways the boat can be used on a particular lake."
Within those limits, a good deal can be done to better manage boats on a particular lake. No-wake times can be set. Certain types of boating use - water-skiing or powerboating, for example - can be kept out of environmentally sensitive areas, if damage or threats can be documented. The statewide rule of slow-no-wake within 100 feet of structures like piers can be increased, and other boundaries can be implemented or increased.
On Dane County lakes, there is a 200-foot no-wake zone extending from shorelines on Lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa. (For more information, visit the Dane County Lakes and Watersheds "Water Recreation" page at www.danewaters.com/private/recreation.aspx.)
In the case of Lake Ripley, many local residents were concerned about the capacity study. After numerous meetings and public hearings, a number of new regulations were put into place, including raising daily and annual fees.
"At the encouragement of the [Lake Ripley Management District] committee, they also adopted a consistent 200-foot slow-no-wake area, to keep boat traffic out from shallow areas," says Dearlove.
To protect the lake's long-term health, the district amended its comprehensive growth plan to restrict some shoreline development for commercial properties. A "keyhole" development rule was also passed.
"It's an anti-funneling ordinance," explains Dearlove, "where a bunch of back-lot properties can't gain access to the lake through a narrow strip of shoreline," usually by building a pier with an inordinate number of boat slips.
These ordinances went into effect during the summer of 2006. Have the changes restricted boat traffic on Lake Ripley?
"Oh, I don't think it's eliminated traffic at all," says Molinaro. "I think it just sort of portioned things out, and allowed people to do speed-boating activities where that's allowed, and then allowed the canoers and the kayakers and other people to do their thing, too."
In Dane County, Jones expects more complaints from some boater and recreational groups, as well as calls for more restrictive ordinances.
"It continues to be a very popular place to recreate, and is accessible to large population," says Jones. "So the potential for more conflicts will continue to exist. We have talked about updating [a 1995] recreational use study, and doing something like what was done for Lake Ripley..., more of a comprehensive recreation management plan that would involve more input from a variety of users."