By Steve Hubrecht

The Lake Windermere Ambassadors have been sounding a note of caution about the effects of wake boats on Lake Windermere for a few months now, and that note rang a little louder last week, when Ambassadors representatives gave a presentation to Invermere council outlining their concerns.

Ambassadors chair Taoya Schaefer explained how recreational boating pressure has increased on the lake over the past decade, particularly with the increasing popularity of wake boats in the past few years. Such boats are purposefully built (ballasted with water and with very powerful engines) to create large wakes on which to surf.

“The shoreline impacts of these waves are evident. Erosion, sediment destroying fish spawning areas, wildlife nesting, habitat and property damage from far larger than natural occurring waves,” Schaefer told council at its Tuesday, June 28 meeting.

She noted that most boat manufacturer recommend a minimum water body depth of six to eight metres. Lake Windermere, however, has an average depth of three to four meters for much of the year, she pointed out.

“When the water is shallower than that, there is scouring of the lake bottom. Aquatic plants are uprooted and sediment re-suspension releases phosphorus and toxins from the lake bottom, contributing to a reduction in aquatic insects and water quality,” said Schaefer. “Our lake bottom sediment contains bacteria, heavy metals, pesticide residues and hydrocarbons from human use over the years. When they are locked away in the lake bed they are relatively harmless, but when the wake stirs up the sediment, creating a murky cloud, these toxins are re-suspended in the water column, cause algae blooms, and become damaging to wildlife and humans.”

Schaefer noted there are drinking water intakes on the lake that could be impacted, and that toxins stirred up also get flushed into the Columbia River wetlands, which she emphasized are globally significant for their biodiversity.

She also made the case that the growing number of wake boats is a safety concern.

“We are getting increasing number of complaints by lake users that the large wakes make the lake unsafe for swimmers, paddle board users, kayakers, canoeists, rowers, and anyone in a small craft,” she said, adding that wake boaters likely only account for, at most, about five per cent of lake users, but impinge heavily on the remaining 95 per cent.

Schaefer cited a University of Minnesota study highlighting the role of wake boats in brining invasive zebra mussels and quagga mussels (through their ballast tanks) into various water bodies and pointed out that Lake Windermere can ill afford to have such creatures introduced.

“We recognize the need for education, but we also need a way to address the environmental damage caused in shallow bodies of water and we know that our lake is very shallow. While we can educate wake boaters, the reality is that nowhere is our lake the recommended depth for safe, non-damaging wake surfing,” said Schaefer.

She asked council to write to the provincial boating safety officer to change boating regulations to allow local authorities to apply for a specific ballasted wake boat restriction, if they choose, without restricting other types of powered watercraft, and asked if the district would consider putting up educational signs about the effects of wake boats. She also outlined that the Ambassadors are planning to seek support from Invermere, the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) and other groups to conduct a recreational carrying capacity study on Lake Windermere to determine the exact effects these boats are having on our shallow lake.

“If the study finds the effects to be as detrimental to as we predict they could be, we will then have a tool for conserving our lake for generations to come,” said Schaefer.

Councillor Gerry Taft expressed some hesitation, saying that when he had been involved with the planning process for the Lake Windermere Management Plan (LWMP) “what I remember is that is is that it was difficult to standardized parameters. It was very much subjective, and almost more social than environmental.”

Ambassadors program coordinator Amy Baxter replied that a recreational carry capacity study would have a scientific environmental component (which would encompassing looking at the effects on habitats and water intakes, for instance) as well as a social component (which would encompass factors such as safety concerns).

Taft responded that when the LWMP was first proposed “there were a lot of boating advocates who falsely called it a ban on boats. It was hugely emotional and hugely controversial…This also has the potential to become extremely divisive and emotional. I think we need to do the science first, separate the social from the science, and then deal with the science.”

“There already is science out there that shows the effects of wake boats in shallow lakes,” chimed in councillor Ute Juras. “I don’t want to shy away from controversy when it comes to the safety of our residents on the lake or the health of the lake itself.”

“Although the discussion may get a little heated at times, it is something we want to look at…We want to do it for the right reasons,” added mayor Al Miller.

“With the science coming out, we are worried… A study would tells us what’s happening with the lake,” said Baxter, adding that similar studies have been done on Kalamalka Lake in the Okanagan, which resulted in maps breaking the lake into various zones where it was more appropriate for different kinds of recreation to occur.

Taft seemed to warm to this idea, saying “I think talk of zoning is less likely to get emotional than talk of bans.”

“To say we’re not going to look at it, that’s not the answer. It may cause a disturbance, but we have to do what’s right, as long as it’s science focussed,” concluded Miller.