Lake erosion

Depending on their locations in the lake, islands and shoreline may show from 3 to 10 feet of soil loss.

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 they have as much right to recreation on the lake as everyone else.

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

Lake magazine explored this issue in its September edition, and The Outlook will reprint the piece in four parts in upcoming newspaper editions.

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 the center of the island has disappeared; it is now two much smaller islands.

Lake Martin Resource Association president John Thompson recently reported 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, 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 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. According to Russell Lands On Lake Martin’s vice president and general counsel Steve Forehand, about 10 years ago erosion, property damage and safety issues were raised over large wakes caused by large boats — vessels longer than the current length limit. Known by the brand of Cigarette boats, these watercrafts could approach speeds of 100 mph 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. Although 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,” Commander said. “If you are not on plane, you are creating a wake.”

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,” Buchanan said. “If there is white water, you are creating a wake. Just because you’re driving slow doesn’t mean there’s no wake.”

In fact, most wakesurfing is done at 10 to 12 mph.

This coverage will resume in Thursday's Outlook.