By KAYE THORNBRUGH
Kootenai County residents are navigating uncertain waters as they attempt to address complaints about damaging wakes on the Spokane River.
County Commissioner Bill Brooks organized a town hall to discuss the issue Wednesday night, attended by approximately 100 people. He said it’s one of several such meetings that he has planned.
“The waterways in Kootenai County are public,” he said. “They have to be safe.”
Damaging wakes on the river have been a contentious issue in recent years, particularly as wakesurfing and general water traffic increase. Large waves created by wake boats and other watercraft can damage docks and erode shorelines over time. They can also pose a danger to swimmers, kayakers, paddle boarders and others.
The speed limit on the Spokane River is 35 mph during the day and 25 mph at night.
If boaters are within 100 feet of a dock, shoreline or structure, they need to travel at a speed no greater than 5 mph and create no wake.
If boaters are within 50 feet of another vessel, the maximum speed is 15 mph.
No motor-driven watercraft can be operated at a speed or in a manner that creates an excessive, dangerous or damaging wake.
Increasing marine deputies has been floated as a possible solution to these wakes. Recent emphasis patrols on the Spokane River resulted in 94 citations over two weekends, including citations for wake zone violations, as well as speed, overloading, no life jackets, negligent operations and no navigation lights.
Creating a no-wake zone on the river has also been discussed among some property owners. Brooks, however, said the idea doesn’t hold water.
“This is not an attempt to ban wake boats or ballast boats,” he said. “They’re not the only boats that create these damaging waves.”
Spokane River Association President RC Roland said the organization has discussed the wake issue for years, but there’s “no consensus” on a potential solution. He added that rivers naturally erode shorelines over time, so some change to the landscape is inevitable.
“It’s like living on a golf course and getting mad when a golf ball hits your roof,” he said.
Roland said that additional regulations are not the right solution. Damaging waves are created by all types of boats, he said, not just wake boats.
“I’m on the side of enforcement and education,” he said. “Just because we own property on the river doesn’t mean we have the right to shut it down.”
Kelly Hollingsworth, who identified herself as a Spokane River Association board member, said she was concerned by Roland’s comments, especially in regard to the lack of consensus within the organization.
She said there has been a “mutiny” within the organization in favor of wakesurfing.
Kirk Hill, who has lived on the river for 15 years, was one of several property owners who have invested in “rip rap” to protect the shoreline from damage. Rip rap is man-placed rock or other material used to armor shorelines.
The rip rap has held up for more than a decade, Hill said. His property has not been significantly damaged by wakes. He said he doesn’t believe additional codes are needed.
“We’re not the kind of people who want to be overrun by regulations,” he said.
Some residents and property owners compared no-wake zones to no-smoking zones or school zones: regulations implemented for public safety.
For many, safety was a primary concern.
“I’m worried that one day, I’m going to see someone lose their life,” Thad Osburn said.
He described waves that crash over the bow of his 20-foot boat and fill it with water, as well as waves that knock kayakers and canoers over and sweep dogs off docks. Though he’s not opposed to wakesurfing, he said the waves created by wake boats are sometimes too big to navigate, which makes them dangerous.
Osburn said he once thought education for boaters was the key to ensuring safety. Now he feels differently.
“I used to believe that, if the average person knew the law, they would not break it,” he said. “I don’t believe that anymore.”
Instead, Osburn said enforcing existing regulations is the best way to increase safety and discourage dangerous boating practices.
“I hate over-regulation,” he said. “But we should work together to create an environment where people can enjoy the water without feeling like their lives are at risk.”
That sentiment was at the core of the meeting. Brooks said he organized the town hall to create an opportunity for people with different opinions to come together and share ideas, concerns and possible solutions. With the end of boating season on the horizon, fall and winter present a chance to continue the discussion.
“We’re all in the same boat here in the county,” he said.