Thursday, May 10, 2018

New Wake Restrictions Awaiting Governor's Signature

June 4th, 2018 Update: This bill was one of the 77 signed by the outgoing Governor on Friday June 1st. 

I've been holding off on a post about the new "Wake restrictions" bill that passed this year and is reportedly awaiting the Governor's signature.  I've been waiting because things are not exactly going to plan in Missouri politics of late. While the Missouri House and Senate have settled on legislation, there's the little problem of actually signing them into law.  Protocol follows that first, the Speaker of the House, and Senate Pro Tem must sign these bills before sending them to the Governor. As of yesterday they had not, but this is not completely unusual for this time of year. Typically the leaders of both houses sign bills at the end of May as a formality before going to the governor for final approval.  Is there anything going on in Missouri politics that might throw a wrench in the usual process? No matter the debacle going on with the Missouri leadership these days, or the Governor's ultimate fate, the likelihood that these bill will get signed means it's time to take a look at the HB2116, which could dramatically affect boating on the Lake of the Ozarks.

What started as House Bill 1591 had ended up passing as HB 2116 which was originally an attempt to change what type of vessels can be exempted from railing requirements for passengers riding on the gunwale (upper edge of the side of a boat).  Basically it exempts sailboats and jet driven vessels (read:PWC's) from railing requirements, which is good since PWC's have no railings. The language from HB1591 was added to HB2116 in order to improve the odds of passing.

Assuming it is signed into law, what does it really mean?

HB2116 replaces the language in Missouri Revised Statutes sections 306.100, 306.125 and 306.126 with new language regarding watercraft in Missouri. Note - A statute is a basically a law, or policy.

There are primarily three changes to the statutes. The first being the aforementioned railing change. Secondly, it changes the penalty for the lack of proper Personal Flotation Devices and creating a wake within 100 feet of a floating structure (dock).

Section 306.100:  I'll avoid the exact language of the first change because it's fairly straightforward. If you're caught without proper Coast Guard approved PFD's (life jackets) in your boat, you're going to get a $25 fine no matter the size of the boat. This seems like a very small penalty for a serious safety issue, but the current penalty of a misdemeanor has been considered too onerous to enforce.  The thinking here is that a small fine will make the rule more enforceable (and certainly won't hurt the coffers of the Water Patrol - wink wink), and you can rest assured, that there will be safety campaigns aplenty on the water this year. There will little mercy for non-compliance since Water Patrol has been looking for this type of change to the law for a long time. Check to be sure you have *all* the required safety equipment for your boat. Furthermore.

Section 306.125:  The bill would maintain the 100 foot distance no-wake restriction from all docks but the penalty would be a $25 fine. There was a proposed 300 foot restriction but that was revised back to 100 feet. Again, a relatively small fine, given the potential damage to property such wakes can make, but one that theoretically makes the rule more enforceable. What's more interesting is that the fine can go to the boat owner, and not just the operator.

"...if the operator cannot be identified, the owner of the watercraft shall be subject to such penalty."

Aside from the obvious, I think this implies that if I take a picture of your boat making a wake within 100 feet of my dock, and I can capture your boat number or port registered name in the image,  you, the boat owner, get the ticket. Of course, the homeowner would have to file a complaint with the Water Patrol, but that is easy enough, and one wonders if some sort of online complaint process might be created. We'll see if I'm right in the coming months as folks will invariably violate the law, and homeowners will invariably document it.

The fines for both PFDs and no-wake infractions are just that, citations that do not require court costs.  Pay the fine, and your done.

But now we get to the real meat and potatoes of HB2116 regarding boat wakes. Section 306.125 continues on to expand which coves can be designated as completely no-wake, and what class of vessel is subject to the rule.

The department of public safety shall promulgate all necessary rules and regulations for the  implementation and administration of a no wake cove for class 3 vessels in a cove with its main juncture less than 800 feet, measured from shore to shore, at the main channel.

A class III vessel is any boat 40 feet or larger in length, which means smaller boats would not be subject to this rule should the majority of homeowners in the cove choose to have it designated as no-wake. I actually think this is a fair rule and one both boat owners and homeowners can support. But let's take a look at just how many coves might be affected.

We've been here before when trying to restrict wakes, but the first attempt was to restrict all coves with a juncture to the main channel of less than 1250 feet, regardless of homeowner sentiment, and for vessels of any size. This would have effectively rendered the entire lake a no-wake zone with the exception of the main channel since there are very few coves with a mouth over 1250' on the lake.  Thankfully this idea went nowhere, but allowing coves of 800 feet or less the option to be no-wake is a game changer, at least for big boats. How many coves are 800 feet or smaller at juncture is a question I leave open(for now), but my estimation is that it's probably the majority of them. It will take time for 75% of the homeowners in any cove to band together to make theirs no-wake zones, but I think it is likely if large boat owners continue to kick up wakes in their coves like they have been for the past few years. It may take a few years, but ultimately, for 40+ foot boats, the main channel will become their only option to run at speed.

The end result of this process, could be less damage to docks and structure within coves, but the unintended consequence will be a main channel that is even rougher than it is today.  For those homeowners and condominiums with docks on the main channel, the challenge of keeping them is only going to get worse. It is also likely we'll see an increase in barrier protections along the main channel which will further constrict vessel operating areas. And what do we do with coves whose mouth is exposed to the main channel? One can easily see a time when breaker barriers will be in front of every cove.

The other possibility is the proliferation of boats 40 feet or longer will plummet. This scenario is something the Marine Dealers Association is keenly aware of and concerned about.

Will this work? Who knows, but it was inevitable that Missouri legislators would get involved and do something.  Time will tell.