Boat lake

House Bill 520 could change vessel operating laws if it were to be passed and signed into law.

Lake Martin is not the only place that is experiencing issues with erosion, property damage and wake boats. It is a problem of national proportions. 

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.

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 a measure to disallow waves greater than 24 inches within 1,000 feet of shorelines on seven Idaho lakes was defeated when studies showed 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 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 president 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, according to 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 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 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission 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 Bassmaster Elite Series 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, according to almost every person interviewed for the four sections of this article. Keeping the lake safe would have a positive impact on tourism, boat sales, the lake’s ecosystem, lake home ownership and more, according to advocacy group members, homeowners, business community leaders and wakesports enthusiasts. And it’s what the marine patrol is all about, according to Capt. Gary Buchanan, Central and Southern districts Commander for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

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 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 said.

“Operate your boat responsibly,” Buchanan said. “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 wak and idle past the folks on the dock. 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.”