While large wakes may accelerate its progress, erosion is a natural process, according to Lake Watch Lake Martin president Eric 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.
Alabama Power Company’s hydroservices manager Jim Crew 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,” Crew said. “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.”
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, Crew said.
“The primary purpose of the islands is general public use, shared use,” Crew said. “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.”
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, according to Crew.
“That is an area that is not intended to be natural,” Crew said. “It is a developed area, and we have a commitment in our license for it to be maintained.”
Although 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, according to Capt. Gary Buchanan, who is central and southern district Commander for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
“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,” Buchanan said. “The problem is that most damage is cumulative. It’s caused by multiple wakes over periods of time.”
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,” Buchanan said, “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.
“To write a citation, the marine police have to see the incident happen.”
Buchanan said protecting property is ultimately the responsibility of the property owner, 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, Buchanan said.
“Most people do not tie up their boats in a way that protects the boat from a large wake,” Buchanan said. “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.
This coverage will resume in Friday’s Outlook.