In recent months, the cumulative voice of nature enthusiasts, property owners and boaters alike has grown from isolated grumbling to collective, serious concern about boating wakes on Lake Martin. Conservationists are alarmed over the rate at which boat wakes are eroding the shoreline; property owners are outraged at the extent of damage that large wakes cause to personal and real property; and boaters fire back that they have as much right to recreation on the lake as everyone else.

And it may be that everyone is right and everyone can do something about it.

Erosion is occurring at an alarming rate on Lake Martin. Though no formal measurements are kept by any local authorities, photographs taken at specific locations on the lake over several years show marked soil loss. So much soil has been washed away from one island near Windermere that the center of the island has disappeared; it is now two, much smaller, islands.

Lake Martin Resource Association President John Thompson recently reported that Adopt-a-Treasured-Island signposts planted 4 feet in from the shoreline three years ago have been washed away in some places.

“We went far enough back with them – we thought – to anticipate some erosion, but in less than three years, the whole bank is gone,” Thompson said.

In River Oaks, Lake Watch Lake Martin President Eric Reutebuch said that, over the years, his neighbors’ shoreline has shrunk by 20 feet and had to be backfilled at considerable expense to reclaim the slope and accessibility to the lake.

The common perception is that large wakes created by recreational wake boaters are responsible.

Wake boats are designed to create big wakes used to launch wakeboarders into the air and to create the large wave needed for wake surfing. Wake boats have specially designed ballast tanks. Water is pumped into tanks on one or both sides of the boat to make it heavier, so it throws a higher wake. The boats are often fitted with moveable hydrofoils used to fine-tune the wake’s shape.

On Lake magazine’s Facebook page, a post of Thompson’s August article about wake responsibility generated more than twice as many engagements as any other article from that issue. And emotions ran high in the subsequent comments that cited wake boats specifically as the cause of property damage claims.

Erosion is not a new issue at Lake Martin. About 10 years ago, said Russell Lands On Lake Martin’s Vice President and General Counsel Steve Forehand, erosion, property damage and safety issues were raised over large wakes caused by large boats – vessels longer than the current length limit of 28 feet. Known as ‘cigarette boats,’ some of these watercraft could approach speeds of 100 miles per hour and created large wakes. Lake Martin also was home to a variety of large, live-aboard boats, which when underway, produced very large wakes as well.

A proximity rule was proposed, which would have limited boat travel to idle speed within 100 feet of a shoreline, Forehand said. This rule could have become effective upon the signature of the sitting commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as at the time, the Marine Police operated under the umbrella of DCNR.

An outpouring of resistance to the rule came from the bass fishing industry. Bass often are found under the cover of docks and piers, and they’re often caught in the last minutes of a tournament. In such situations, a fisherman would have to idle away from the dock until he had progressed the required 100 feet from the structure before he could begin to hurry to the weigh-in. Such minutes could cost a championship.

Under pressure from the bass fishing industry, the DCNR commissioner did not sign the proposed 100-foot proximity rule. Today, such an issue would have to be addressed by the Alabama Legislature, according to Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Marine Patrol Division Chief Steve Thompson.

In lieu of the proximity rule, a public relations campaign – Watch Your Wake, Share the Lake – was launched, and a length limit was instituted for new boats at the lake. Though the long boats that already called Lake Martin home were grandfathered, few remain on the lake today.

But wake boats and bass boats are not the only wake-creating boats on the lake. Every boat creates a wake as it moves through the water.

Russell Lands President and CEO Tom Lamberth said pontoon boats have created problem wakes within 30 feet of the floating dock at his Willow Point home.

And Russell Marine President Dave Commander said boaters who cruise by lakeside neighborhoods looking at houses could inadvertently cause problems with their wakes.

“If you’re driving by viewing property at idle speed, it takes speeding up just a little, and you are not on plane. If you are not on plane, you are creating a wake,” Commander said.

Marine Police Capt. Gary Buchanan agreed. As commander of the Central and Southern Marine Patrol Enforcement districts, which are now under the umbrella of the ALEA, Buchanan said the key to identifying wake-causing watercraft is in the ‘Watch Your Wake’ campaign slogan.

“Boat drivers should be in the habit of looking all around, including looking behind them to see if they are creating a wake. If there is white water, you are creating a wake. Just because you’re driving slow doesn’t mean there’s no wake,” Buchanan explained.

In fact, most wakesurfing is done at 10 to12 miles per hour.

While large wakes may accelerate its progress, erosion is a natural process, explained Reutebuch. As a body of water seeks balance over time, it naturally carves away soil on points as the flow of water cuts across turns and bends, and that soil is deposited in open areas as the stream widens and slows.

This process can be seen in Lake Martin’s upper lake between Hillabee Creek and the railroad trestle. An Alabama GIS map linked to the Tallapoosa County Tax Assessor’s webpage offers a clear look at the process. The map shows a series of sandbars that have formed in the upper lake region, an area where large-wake recreational boats rarely go.

A minnow-shaped sandbar can be seen across the riverbed at the bottom of a wide bend of the river just below the mouth of Hillabee Creek. Around the next turn, a smaller deposit has formed, and at the mouth of Britt Creek, another is forming.

Wind also plays a part in erosion, Reutebuch said.

An erosion-related issue, turbidity can have a devastating effect on a body of water, he added. Clay particles that have been dislodged through erosion can stay suspended for days or even weeks, killing the natural algae community and plants on the lake bottom. If it occurs in late winter or spring, turbidity could interfere with spawning beds and fish eggs. Severe turbidity can keep fish gills from extracting oxygen from the water.

And Jim Crew, Alabama Power Company’s HydroServices manager, said the company’s operations occasionally have been found to be responsible for erosion in specific locations on the reservoir. Alabama Power Company is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to generate electric power at Martin Dam and to maintain the lake under the terms of the license. But under those terms, the company has only limited authority over general erosion issues, Crew said.

If erosion damage cannot be attributed to the company’s operations, the classification of the land determines Alabama Power’s responsibilities toward erosion damage.

“When a specific erosion issue is presented for our review, Alabama Power will do an analysis to determine if that issue is due to our operations. If it is, that’s our responsibility. We fix it. But if it wasn’t caused by our operations, there isn’t much of anything that we could do about it,” Crew said.

Project lands that are classified as natural and undeveloped, according to the terms of the license, remain just that – natural, even if it means an island might be washed away, he said.

“The primary purpose of the islands is general public use, shared use. It doesn’t have a specific recreational benefit, so it needs to be kept in its naturally occurring situation. Islands are not protected unless a very specific purpose is being protected,” Crew explained.

If an area is classified as a project recreational site – such as D.A.R.E. Park – Alabama Power has an obligation to address erosion there, Crew said.

“That is an area that is not intended to be natural; it is a developed area, and we have a commitment in our license for it to be maintained,” he explained.

Though Alabama Power holds no responsibility for damage to real or physical property belonging to lakefront homeowners, the company provides recommendations for erosion control through its Shoreline Management Plan and monitors shoreline maintenance and repair work through the permitting program.

Learn more about BMPs for erosion control at apcshorelines.com and visit lakemagazine.life for more shoreline protection suggestions.

Because erosion is a process that occurs through repetitive actions over time, it’s hard to hold any one party responsible for the damage it causes, explained Buchanan.

“In order to hold a boat driver responsible for damage, you would have to show that there was a negligent or willful act on their part that caused that wake and caused that particular damage. The problem is that most damage is cumulative. It’s caused by multiple wakes over periods of time,” he said.

The same is true of physical damage to docks and the watercraft and other personal property stored at them. In an effort to hold boat drivers accountable, property owners have taken to recording video of wake boats operating in close proximity to their docks as watercraft undulate – sometimes violently – in the residual waves that pass through, hit the shoreline and bounce back again.

But such videos are rarely helpful, Buchanan said.

“If a homeowner is willing to go to the courthouse and swear out a warrant, the video could possibly be used as evidence, but the homeowner would have to be able to identify the person driving the boat. Most people don’t know that person driving the boat, and the registration numbers on the boat don’t necessarily identify the driver,” he explained.

“To write a citation, the marine police have to see the incident happen,” he added.

Protecting property is ultimately the responsibility of the property owner, Buchanan said, just as off-shore landowners would be responsible for the upkeep of their homes and properties. But there are measures that homeowners can take to better protect their boats at the docks, he said.

“Most people do not tie up their boats in a way that protects the boat from a large wake,” he explained. “A boat is made to go into the wake bow first, but if you look at the way boats are tied at piers, the stern is facing the direction that wakes will come from. The best way is to secure your boat where the bow is facing the direction that the wake will come from; and then, use fenders – properly sized and secured – to keep a rocking boat from hitting the dock.

“Another thing boat owners can do is to secure the boat in an area where you can secure four corners with rope lengths that are measured so that the boat cannot come into contact with any part of the dock. When all four ropes are properly secured, no part of the boat could touch the dock.”

Much of the heat in the discussion of large wakes is initiated by lakefront homeowners that find themselves strapped with repair bills for damage to their watercraft and docks. They also contend with the loss of furniture from the docks and endangerment of children who may be swimming near the dock when a wake boat blasts into a slough with full ballasts and a rider behind the boat.

While homeowners wish wake boats would steer clear of the narrow sloughs in which they live, wake boaters contend that they are chased into sloughs by personal watercraft and boats pulling tube riders. This especially is a problem on busy days, said Singleton wakeboard pro Ben Watts, who grew up on Lake Martin.

Like fireflies trailed by children on a summer evening, large wakes attract other recreation. Going airborne is a thrill for tube riders and PWC drivers. Though it’s also against the law for PWCs to jump another boat’s wake, Buchanan said, people rarely drive that way when a marine patrol boat is around to issue a citation.

“PWCs and tubers are out there looking for any wave in general, so they gravitate to the wake. A lot of the PWCs are driven by younger kids who are by themselves. They are just paying attention to the wake, not where they are going, and they’re not aware of the rider in front of them,” Watts said.

Calm water also is important.

Choppy water causes problems for skiers, boarders and surfers, which makes glassy sloughs the preferred location for behind-the-boat water sports.

“We look for places where the wind is blocked and away from other boats that would make the water rough,” Watts said. “When I go out, I go early in the morning or on weekdays when the lake is not so busy, and I choose spots where there are no houses or docks, so I don’t disturb homeowners.

“The reason that I am so aware of wakes and the potential damage is that I have lived on the lake my whole life. We experience these problems with boats as much as others do. When our boat is on the end of the dock, we have to go run and catch the boat. It’s not just wake boats. We have had a lot of problems with PWCs going really slow, but it could be any boat. It’s a misconception that it’s just the wake boats.

“I was raised to be aware of the wake and the potential damage that it can cause, and everybody I ride with is very aware of where and how we are riding.”

Ideal conditions for wake sports, Watts said, include 15 feet or more of depth, as shallow water changes the quality of the wake.

“The middle of the slough is almost always the deepest, so wake boats generally perform better if they are not close to docks and shorelines,” Watts explained.

While the center of a slough offers the best ride, Buchanan said what looks like the middle section of an area often is a matter of perspective.

“If I am in the boat, what’s close to the dock for me looks very different than for the person on the dock. From the boater’s perspective, he’s plenty far from the dock, but the guy on the dock thinks, ‘Good grief! These people are coming close to me!’” he said. “There’s not a hard and fast requirement.”

A hard and fast requirement is what many homeowners would like to see, and there may well be one on the way.

House Bill 520 has moved through the Homeland Security Committee of the Alabama House of Representatives and could be under consideration when the Legislature reconvenes. If it passes both the House and Senate and is signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey, it would be unlawful for a person to operate a vessel or personal watercraft at greater than idle speed within 100 feet of a moored or anchored boat; a dock, pier or bridge; a person in the water; a shoreline adjacent to a residence; a public park or beach; or a marina, restaurant or other public use area.

Improving general boating education and the licensing process also has been discussed as a potential solution, though no formal proposal has been introduced.

Currently, a boating license can be obtained online after passage of a basic rules-of-the-road type of test. No driving test is administered or required.

When a purchased boat is delivered, customers typically receive basic safety instruction and driving tips from a sales rep or marina employee, and several marinas post safety campaign signs on their counters, urging boaters to operate under self-imposed shoreline limitations. Russell Marine customers sign a compliance agreement to that effect at the time of purchase, Commander said, and boat manufacturers offer support and training sessions to marina employees with the intent that information will be forwarded to customers.

“We do try to educate our customers. If we want to survive, we have to practice safety and good wake responsibility,” Commander said.

But thorough instruction and accountability for boat drivers is lacking on the lake, and many visitors to the lake are not required to hold credentials of any kind to drive a boat here. Visit lakemagazine.life for more on boat driving requirements at Lake Martin.

Our Treasured Lake is not the only place that is experiencing these issues: It is a problem of national proportions. 

New Hampshire, Vermont and Oregon legislatures are considering similar bills, and Georgia recently adopted a 100-foot proximity limit from shorelines, docks, persons in the water, moored vessels and other boats.

The current issue of Boating Industry Magazine reports that a measure to disallow waves greater than 24 inches within 1,000 feet of shorelines on seven Idaho lakes was defeated when studies showed that wake boats operating more than 200 feet offshore did not damage shorelines or waterfront structures. More than 3,100 people signed an online petition against the proximity proposal out of concern that the limitation would have an adverse effect on the local economy.

Accessibility to boating also plays a major role in the economy at Lake Martin and its surrounding communities. While local boat dealers were reluctant to quote actual sales figures, Russell Marine’s Dave Commander indicated the number would be substantial.

“It would be in the tens of millions of dollars a year in boat sales,” Commander said.

Several Lake Martin boat dealers – including Russell Marine and Singleton – consistently have been named among Boating Industry Magazine’s top 10 dealers in the country every year for five or more years.

These boat sales generate tax revenues, said Alexander City Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ed Collari. Additional tax revenues from registration fees, gasoline sales and other purchases are added to the local economy when boaters spend money in local restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations.

Boat sales and tax revenues reflect the fact that boating is the most popular activity at Lake Martin and accounts for more than one-half of all recreational activity, according to data published by FERC in its Final Environmental Impact Study for the Martin Dam relicensing project released in April 2015.

Fishing tournaments also are big business for the communities that host them. At Lake Martin, Wind Creek State Park hosts some 30 tournaments each year during winter’s recreational boating off-season. Park Superintendent Bruce Adams said 15 of those tournaments register more than 50 boats. Visiting anglers rent campground spaces, fill hotel rooms, eat in local restaurants and purchase gasoline at local stations, supporting local jobs. Last year’s three-day Elite Series Bassmaster tournament on Lake Martin brought more than $1 million in revenue to Alexander City and the surrounding area and promoted the Lake Martin area on the national ESPN television network.

The economic impact of boating is an important consideration in any solution to the web of local concerns, but none of these concerns is more important than safety, said almost every person interviewed for this article. Keeping the lake safe would have a positive impact on tourism, boat sales, the lake’s ecosystem, lake home ownership and more, said advocacy group owners, homeowners, business community leaders and wakesports enthusiasts, and it’s what the marine patrol is all about, said Buchanan.

While stakeholders at the lake – including homeowners, nature enthusiasts, boaters, boat dealers, anglers and others – consider the potential effectiveness and impacts of solutions, Buchanan said the best solution is one that all lake stakeholders have the ability to implement.

“Be courteous,” he said. “Be respectful.”

Respect should be extended to homeowners and pleasure boaters alike, Buchanan suggested.

“Operate your boat responsibly. Some of the things people complain about aren’t violations of the law but fall under courtesy and common sense. If you are driving a wake boat, err on the side of caution. Look behind you to see if you are creating a wake; and idle past the folks on the dock,” he said. “Don’t cut in front of another boat; know who has the right of way and respect the rules, each other’s property and each other’s right to be on the water.”

Visit lakemagazine.life for more on this story.