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Boat wakes, illegal buoys on the Spokane River cause a splash that ripples all the way to Boise

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 21, 2017

There are more than 70 illegal, unpermitted buoys on the Spokane River from Lake Coeur d’Alene to the Post Falls Dam that homeowners have put out to try to slow down boaters and reduce damage to their property – and they’re all being ordered removed.

The ultimatum followed an Idaho state Land Board meeting in Boise as Kootenai County property owners, boat owners and sellers, officials and others clashed.

“I get that, they’re illegal, they need to be removed and it’s our responsibility,” said Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the Land Board. “But what’s the answer to let these people protect their private property?”

Eric Wilson, a state Lands Department bureau chief, responded that it’s up to county officials to resolve. They could enlarge no-wake zones on the river, which currently extend 100 feet from the shore on each side. But in some areas, the river is less than 300 feet wide. Boat wakes are causing erosion to the shoreline and damage to docks and boats moored along the river.

The newest wakeboarding boats, without traveling at high speeds, are ballasted and designed to generate waves of up to 42 inches in height. If a boat generating a 42-inch wake goes down the Spokane River, Wilson said, “When it hits the shore it is not substantially diminished. If you’re standing on a floating dock, you will get knocked off the dock into the water.”

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who lives on the river, said his next-door neighbor was knocked off his dock by a wave while attempting to repair it and suffered a leg injury.

John Condon, chairman of the Kootenai County Parks and Waterways Board, told the Land Board that he was speaking on his own behalf. “We’ve been trying to find a solution to this issue for many years,” he said. “My personal opinion is any time you look to take away rights and privileges of the general public to use their own waterways, that’s a dangerous precedent to set.” He said he’s hoping for a “happy medium” – short of a no-wake zone for the river – instead stepping up enforcement of existing laws. Sheriff’s marine patrols on the river have been sharply cut back over the past decade, he said; increasing that could help.

Craig Brosenne of Hagadone Marine Group told the board, “We have about 15 customers on the Spokane River that do have wakeboard boats, and they own property there. And they’re very concerned that their property values would go down if it was to become a no-wake zone totally.”

He noted that boat traffic has increased in the area over the past 10 years, and there are hundreds more homes along the river now. “It’s a recreation way of life in North Idaho, and then you add the Washington state trailer boat owners that are coming over,” he said. “My feeling is it needs to be done through the laws that are on the books.”

The Idaho Safe Boating Act already makes it illegal for boaters to operate their boats in a manner that “cause(s) any damage to or affects the safety of other vessels, docks, shoreline installations or any other property or person.” But enforcement is tricky.

Craig Hamelink told the board he’s facing an $8,000 estimate from Condon’s North Idaho Maritime, which does dock repairs and construction, to repair damage to his dock caused by boat wakes.

“One of the laws on the books states that boaters are responsible for their wake and the damage that the wake creates. My question is: Where do we send our bill?” Hamelink asked. “Do we send it to the county for the damages? Or do we have to do a class-action lawsuit against every boater that has a ballast boat?”

“In reference to the buoys,” Hamelink said, “I know that the homeowners fully agree – if the ballast boats and the boats were exactly regulated properly we would not have the buoys out there.”

Doug Parker, owner of Parker Toyota in Coeur d’Alene, told the Land Board he views the issue “in somewhat of a different manner” than Condon. “His stand is that the boating public shouldn’t be denied their recreational fun, and that comes first and foremost,” Parker said, adding that he’s owned property on the river, and on Lake Coeur d’Alene and Priest Lake, for 40 years.

“The laws are on the books. You are responsible for your wake – freshwater, salt water, moving or still, you’re responsible for your wake,” Parker said. “So you need to enforce the laws that are there. So we’ve got this thing going on where we’re tearing up the shoreline, it is dangerous. It’s not just the wakeboard boats, it’s other boats too, but the wakeboard boats are the primary contributor. The answer is to please go out in the middle of the big lake where the waves can dissipate.”

Parker added, “We’re also stirring up the sediment,” including “the bad stuff,” contaminated mining wastes that lie below.

Parker said, “A 42-inch wave in the Spokane River – that’s probably not a real desirable thing.”

Nonini was campaigning for lieutenant governor in eastern Idaho on Tuesday and wasn’t able to call in to the Land Board meeting, but he said, “It’s an issue that I’ve been frustrated on for about four years. … I’ve talked with the county commissioners, they don’t do anything. I’ve talked with the sheriff about what’s going on out at our house, and many of my neighbors and constituents on the Spokane River, and nothing ever changes.”

Nonini said after four years of frustration, he alerted the state Land Board, and took state Lands Director Tom Schultz out on his boat on the river in August to show him the problems.

“I showed him the buoys, and I know I’m not supposed to put buoys up, but I want to protect my property and my neighbors want to protect their property,” Nonini said. “The wakes are too big, the property damage is too severe.”

Nonini said he’s lived on the river for more than 30 years. “All the water skiing and wake boarding that’s happened over that period of time hasn’t created any damage, but these new surf boats and the size of the wakes they throw out have started to create an amazing amount of damage, both to developed property and undeveloped property. It just needs to get addressed before it gets any worse.”

One of the photos shown to the Land Board on Tuesday showed Nonini’s own improperly placed buoy line on the river in August.

Wilson said the homeowner-placed buoys are a serious danger to navigation, especially those that include ropes and lines of buoys attempting to mark off swimming areas; in some cases, they’ve gotten entangled in boats’ propellers. They’re also illegal.

“Floating lines and log booms also create a sense of ‘privately owned’ lake or river area, and they are a serious boating safety issue,” Wilson said.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said, “The entire river bottom is public. So as you put buoys along there, you’re limiting access to the public. … I think that’s really where the rub comes in, in this whole problem.”

Wasden said the Land Board is responsible for enforcing laws regarding encroachments on state waterways, including the buoys, but the local sheriff is responsible for enforcing boating laws and the local county commissioners are the ones who can change the local restrictions.

The department wanted “just to get this issue in front of you,” Schultz told the board. “We’ll continue to work with local officials to continue to try to come up with some solution.”

Wilson said most buoys are removed in the fall when the boating season ends; if they reappear in the spring, the Department of Lands will send property owners notices of noncompliance ordering them removed, and if they’re not, “the department will seek injunctive relief from the district court,” as required by law.

Nonini said he hopes by next spring, a solution will have been found. “I appreciate that the Land Board’s looking at the issue,” he said. On summer weekends, he said, “It’s crazy out there with surf boats and water skiers and kids on tubes.”

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