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Vermont is proposing the strictest regulations in the country on wake boats. Some say they don't go far enough

Women in shades of blue hold up signs that call for a 1,000-foot buffer from shore for wake boats in Vermont. They are in a library meeting room, with white halls.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Kathi Lengel, Christine Cano and Michaelanne Widness hold up signs calling for a 1,000-foot shoreline buffer where wake boats can't operate at a rally in Richmond on August 1.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed new regulations on wake boats in Vermont, and is asking for public feedback.

The rules come after the group Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes filed a petition in March 2022, calling for the state to regulate wake boats on Vermont waters.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, the proposed rules would be the most restrictive statewide regulation on wake boats in the nation.

Michigan, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Oregon and New Hampshire all have taken some steps to regulate wake boats, too.

But a coalition of lake users and lake associations in the state, as well as some selectboards called Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes, say what's proposed doesn't go far enough.

Wake boats carry heavy ballasts that allow them to create a big wave that people can surf. The waves are more substantial than for a traditional motorboat.

And studies have shown that those big waves cause erosion and stir up phosphorous when the boats operate in surf mode close to shore or in shallow water.

State regulators are proposing a 500-foot buffer zone from shorelines, where wake boats would not be allowed to operate. The draft regulation also restricts the boats from operating in less than 20 feet of water. And it prohibits them on lakes smaller than 50 acres.

Additionally, the proposed rule imposes a requirement that boats display a "home lake" on their hull.

Boats registered in Vermont would have to stick to one lake for the duration of the season, and get their ballasts cleaned by a state-approved contractor before moving their boat to another body of water.

Some members of Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes raised concerns about how the home lakes provision would be enforced, as some Vermont Lakes don't have greeters to remind wake boat users at the launch. And the DEC conceded there is some ambiguity and discretion for wardens when it comes to requiring out-of-state boats get their ballasts cleaned before launching in a Vermont water.

A giant inflatable loon tube sits on a table in the Richmond Free Library's meeting hall.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Those calling for stricter regulations of wake boats cited concerns about how wakes might impact loon nests along the shore. Vermont's loon population has rebounded in recent years.

The latter is an effort to quell the spread of invasive species like zebra mussels, which state officials say can survive in ballast water for up to five days.

These regulations would restrict wake boats from all but 31 of Vermont's 300 or so lakes and ponds.

And while Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes says it applauds much of what's been proposed, the group is calling for regulators to enforce a 1,000-foot buffer from shoreline.

That has been echoed by the watershed advocacy group, the Vermont Association of Lakes and Ponds, as well as several selectboards and watershed associations across Vermont.

Jack Widness is an organizer with Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes who lives on Lake Raponda in Wilmington. They held a rally Tuesday evening before a public hearing over the rules, that about 70 people attended.

Widness says his group sees this as a dispute over the science.

"The DEC, their science is 500 feet from shore. And our interpretation of it, it should be 1,000 [ft.]," Widness said.

Oliver Pierson, who leads the DEC's Lakes and Ponds program, says the state chose its 500 feet buffer after reviewing a study from Minnesota which found that at between 425 feet and 600 feet from shore, wake boats had an equivalent impact to the shoreline as regular motor boats.

But Widness and others say 1,000 feet is more appropriate, in part because it allows Vermont to stay ahead of any efforts by industry to build boats with bigger ballasts that produce bigger waves.

Some at the meeting called for a Vermont-specific study, and others called for an outright ban on wake boats in Vermont, except for on Lakes Champlain and Memphremagog.

But at least a few speakers at Tuesday's public hearing advocated a different perspective.

Ben McLaughlin operates a wake boat on Lake Fairlee. He says he's been recreating there for about 25 years.

"I think that the 500-foot draft rule is a reasonable compromise," he said at Tuesday's meeting. "It doesn't put undue pressure that a 1,000-foot buffer would."

McLaughlin said he feels it's appropriate to restrict wake boats on small lakes, and the 500-foot buffer would do that.

A man in a striped polo and flip-flops stands at a podium in a meeting hall. Someone with a different view sits right in front of him, listening.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
Adam Martin owns a camp on Lake Groton and is a wake boat operator. He spoke against Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes' proposed 1,000-foot buffer in heated testimony Tuesday night.

He urged regulators to build new guidelines and educational material about safe operations and good stewardship into the licensure process.

Jim Hurley of Middlesex was one of a few wake boat operators who spoke in opposition to the state's proposed 500-foot buffer, expressing concern that this regulation would open the door to other restrictions on what Vermonters can do on the state's water bodies.

He pointed to the state's statistic that wake boats account for just 5% of motorized boat traffic in Vermont.

"One thing that is convincingly clear is that both sides are not happy with this rule change," Hurley said.

However, most speakers Tuesday night spoke in favor of strengthening the state's proposed rule to include the 1,000-foot buffer.

Jennifer Andrews, president of the Shadow Lake Association, told regulators that her membership as well as the Glover Select Board supports a 1,000-foot buffer, in part over public safety concerns.

"Visitors and residents alike know Shadow Lake is small, quite and safe," she said.

Paul Zaloum owns a camp on Woodbury Lake and is an open water swimmer. He also urged regulators to increase the limit to 1,000 feet.

"I tow a swim buoy, I stay close to shore most of the time and I pay close attention to the boat traffic. None of these measures will help any swimmer recover from silent and unexpected 3 to 4-foot wave," he said.

Many comments revealed a conflict between lakefront property owners over how those lakes should be used, in addition to concerns over the environmental impact of wake boats.

The last scheduled public hearing is Aug. 2 at 5 p.m. via Zoom. Written comments may be submitted via email to with the subject line "wake boats." The deadline to file public comments is 4:30 pm on Aug. 10.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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