For the past two years, business has been moving in the wrong direction for Dan Lay, who manages the wake boat dealership Active Water Sports in the Portland metro area.
“I’m seeing customers wanting to sell their boats,” he said. “No one’s champing at the bit to buy new boats. It’s definitely made doing business more difficult.”
Wake boats are designed to create an endless 3-foot wave that wake surfers and wakeboarders can ride. They can make a river or a lake feel more like the ocean and set the stage for spectacular water sports.
But a new set of rules designed to reduce wakes, congestion and property damage on crowded stretches of Portland’s Willamette River have left wake boat owners with fewer places to use their boats for water sports.
The rules prohibit wake surfing altogether on a 30-mile stretch of the river above Willamette Falls, and they restrict wake surfing below the falls to an area below Portland’s Broadway Bridge.
For Lay, who grew up wake surfing on the Willamette and wants to teach his kids to surf there too, the rules came as a major blow.
“We’re pretty limited on where we can recreate,” Lay said. “They’ve bottlenecked everything into one small zone. It makes it more dangerous when you force everyone into one small area. "
Lay said the new rules even drove some of his customers to move out of state to find better places for wake surfing now that the options around Portland are so limited.
“There are lakes and rivers you can travel to, but they’re farther away,” he said. “The Willamette is a beautiful river. I 100% believe we’re not doing anything to destroy it.”
Critics argue the waves generated by wake boats can create hazards for other people on the river, damage riverfront property and threaten salmon habitat. In recent years, they’ve blamed wake boats for breaking riverside docks, cracking the walls in floating homes and causing non-motorized boats nearby to capsize and even snap in half.
Cleaner river is getting overcrowded
For a long time, the city’s stretch of the river was a dumping ground for sewage and toxic waste.
Diane Dulken, a spokeswoman for the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, said the city’s $1.4 billion big pipe project has reduced the amount of sewage flowing into the Willamette River by 94% and made the river much cleaner.
“It used to be that sewer overflows were so common that we would post a sign at the beginning of the rainy season and it would just stay up there all spring — a whole season where you would stay away from the river or risk exposure to sewage,” she said.
Now that the river is cleaner, it’s safe enough for all kinds of recreation and has become an increasingly popular place for swimmers, paddlers, rowing teams and sailing clubs as well as motorized boaters towing tubes, water skis, wakeboards and surfboards. The result, especially on summer weekends, is congestion and conflict.
“Our relationship with the river is changing,” Dulken said. “More people are using the river and enjoying the river and that’s turning out to be year-round. And we have a new set of happy challenges because the river is being used as the open space that it is.”
Rules reduce complaints
As more and more people are recreating on Portland’s stretch of the Willamette River, the critics of water sports that generate big wakes have gotten louder and more numerous.
Last year, they pressed the Oregon Marine Board to pass new restrictions on wake surfing and towed water sports like water skiing and tubing on crowded stretches of the river. This year, they supported a successful bill in the Oregon Legislature that banned wake surfing above Willamette Falls.
Josh Mulhollem, the agency’s environment and policy program manager, said the response to the new rules has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“The rules seem to be making a big impact,” he said. “Wake surfing has significantly decreased. We’ve heard from property owners that it’s a much more pleasant experience on the Willamette this year because of those rules.”
Mulhollem said his agency has gotten requests for more boater education and signage to inform people of the new rules as well as additional law enforcement to ticket people who break the rules. He said the marine board plans to post more signs.
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office issued half as many warnings and citations to people breaking the new rules this year compared with last year, which could indicate that more people are following the rules.
Problems move downstream
Multnomah County Marine Patrol Sgt. Stephen Dangler said people who rent boats along the river are often not aware of the rules, but he has noticed more experienced local boaters moving downriver where they can comply with the new rules. That has effectively moved the problems downstream, he said.
“A lot of times people who are doing the activities are pretty good and they want to show that off around downtown areas,” he said. “So we have a lot of swimmers, paddle-boarders and kayaks that are now getting swamped by the wake of the ski boats. It’s been tough. We’ve made restrictions in some areas, and now we’re seeing an influx of issues in other areas.”
Sgt. Nate Thompson with Clackamas County Marine Patrol said his enforcement team has issued 73 warnings for wake violations and seven citations since the rules kicked in last year, and he’s found a lot of people claim they didn’t know about the rules.
“There was one repeat offender I talked to more than once,” he said. “There are some people who say, ‘I know I’m not supposed to be doing this, and I don’t care.’”
Despite a reduction in complaints about wake surfing, Thompson sees quite a bit of conflict on the river because non-motorized recreation on stand-up paddle boards and kayaks continues to grow.
“A lot of those motorized boats are still moving through the area,” he said. “We’re still getting complaints of congestion for things like paddleboarders being in the middle of the river and motor boats navigating around them.”
Advocates pleased with response
The rules passed last year created a “pass-through” zone on the river below Willamette Falls where no towed water sports are allowed. The zone includes a stretch of the river where Renee Morgan lives in a floating home in Portland’s Sellwood area.
Morgan founded a group called the Calm Water Coalition to fight for the boating restrictions after seeing wakes damage the walls and infrastructure at her home.
She and her husband documented about 40 violations of the new rules last year and sent reports to the Oregon State Marine Board so that the boat owners can be notified. This year, she said they saw a big drop in violations near their home and only sent five reports to the marine board.
“The river slowed way down this summer,” she said. “We just weren’t seeing very many wake sports out there. They just didn’t come.”
Morgan said she has heard reports from others of wake surfing taking place in the stretches of the river near the St. Johns Bridge, where it is still allowed, and on the Columbia River.
“In general, I can say it’s all good news,” she said. “There are a lot more people spending time on the river in stand-up paddle boards, canoes and kayaks. It’s very safe now, so I think they told all their friends, and I’ve been amazed at the number of people going by. That’s what we wanted.”
In 2019, the environmental group Willamette Riverkeeper petitioned the state to prohibit wake boats altogether, arguing large wakes can erode the riverbanks and put juvenile salmon at risk of being stranded on shore.
The group’s executive director Travis Williams said the new rules seem to be working, even though they don’t ban wake boats from the river.
“We have not heard any catastrophic stories,” he said.
Williams said he’s looking forward to seeing more safe areas for river recreation as contamination is removed in the $1 billion Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup.
“By 2024, we’re going to see real movement, real reduction of risk on that 11-mile stretch of the river,” he said. “You’ll see machinery or barges removing contaminated sediment. You’ll see capping material being deposited into cleanup sites.”
Cleanups could help with river access
An 11-mile stretch of Portland’s Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge to Columbia Slough is still contaminated from decades of industrial use and is listed as a federal Superfund site — placing it among the most polluted places in the country.
Michael Pouncil, who chairs the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, said there’s still “an industrial wall” blocking low-income communities and people of color in North Portland from accessing the river.
He’s been pushing for a cleanup at Willamette Cove, a contaminated area on the river in the St. Johns neighborhood that could offer great river access but is currently laced with toxic metals and dioxin.
In August, the Metro Council voted to remove all moderately contaminated soil from the Willamette Cove area as part of a cleanup that will one day turn the former industrial site into a greenway with water access.
“It’s great news,” Pouncil said. “They marked a large sum of money for Willamette Cove because of the environmental injustice that was happening. It had been years, and nothing had been done. There was no communication with the community about that property.”
It could still take another 10 years to get the site fully cleaned up, he said, but at least now there is a commitment to funding the project.
“I see it being an awesome place to launch a kayak,” Pouncil said. “It’s going to enhance the river and the ecology of this area. This is not just an industrial corridor. We can have both. It doesn’t have to be either or.”
Pouncil said more cleanups and more river access points could help relieve congestion and offer more recreational space for everyone.