The environmental group Willamette Riverkeeper has petitioned the state of Oregon to restrict the use of large wakesurfing boats because of the risks they pose to people, property, wildlife and habitat on the Willamette River.

Wakesurfing is like surfing in the ocean, but you use a boat to make the wave. It starts out a bit like water skiing, but then you let go of the rope and surf in the boat’s wake.

An aerial image illustrates erosion along the bank of the Willamette River.

An aerial image illustrates erosion along the bank of the Willamette River.

Courtesy of Willamette Riverkeeper

To make a wave that’s big enough to surf, though, you need a big, heavy boat. And that’s where the problem comes in, according to Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper.

“They’re generating waves that are not natural to the Willamette in any fashion,” he said. “Then you sprinkle in other river users. You have people stand-up paddleboarding. You have people canoeing. You have people kayaking. … I’m a pretty good canoeist, but you’ve got to think about how you’re staying upright and not getting swamped in a lot of these situations.”

Williams said not only do the 3- to 4-foot waves create safety hazards for other boaters, they’ve been known to damage private property like the docks and houseboats lining the river and erode the shoreline habitat that many plants and animals depend on. Because they’re bigger and heavier than most of the other boats on the river, he said, they create bigger waves and do more damage.

His group sent a petition to the Oregon Department of State Lands last month asking the agency to immediately limit the use of wakesurfing boats on the Willamette to 3,500 pounds.

“It’s tough for us,” he said. “We like to think that in our work for clean water and healthy habitat all river users are kind of in the same family. But unfortunately, this is just such a different, newer form of motorized recreation that’s having impacts on everybody else that we seriously need to consider limiting their presence in certain areas.”

Matt Radich runs Active Water Sports, a company that sells wakesurfing boats in the Portland area. He says his industry is open to solutions — including restrictions on what areas are open to wakesurfing — but a 3,500-pound boat limit would effectively ban the sport on the Willamette River.

“There are lots of ideas and ways we can work together without banning boats on the Willamette River,” he said. “We want to be safe. We don’t want conflicts with paddlers. We don’t want to be looked at as someone who increases erosion. We want to be part of the solution.”

Radich said the Oregon Marine Board has already imposed area restrictions on wakesurfing in a stretch of the Willamette running roughly from Newberg to West Linn. It’s working on additional rules for the lower river, including where it flows through Portland and the southeast metro area.

“I think the biggest thing that could be done is increased education for tow boat operators,” he said. “The majority of the conflicts we see are when people are operating their boats in a manner they’re not supposed to.”

The Oregon Department of State Lands is reviewing Willamette Riverkeeper’s petition, which requests a response by the end of the year.