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New U of M research could make waves in fight over wakesurfing

Without state money, University of Minnesota researchers have turned to an unusual source to finance the project: crowdfunding.

Wakesurfing has grown substantially in recent years. The sport relies on boats that move relatively slowly, but churn up large wakes that a person surfs on a short board without the use of a tow rope.

When state lawmakers debated how far to restrict the controversial sport of wakesurfing earlier this year, the effect of disruptive boat waves on shorelines and fish habitat was not settled science.

Anti-surfing activists and boating industry groups clashed over conflicting research, and ultimately legislators couldn’t reach an agreement on what regulations should look like.

Now, the University of Minnesota is hoping to conduct its own study on the power and energy of boat waves, which could help bring clarity to an issue that has ignited passions of lake-goers across the state. Jeff Marr, associate director of engineering and facilities at the U’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, said there is high public interest in the effects of large wakes and little existing research.

“We’ve heard from everybody, from people that own these boats to people that are affected by large boats, that want this information,” Marr said.

There is a catch, however. While the U asked for state money to conduct its research, legislators did not approve any cash. So the lab has turned to an unusual, and not guaranteed, source of money: crowdfunding.

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The U answers a ‘call for research’ 

Wakesurfing has grown substantially in recent years. The sport relies on boats that move relatively slowly, but churn up large wakes that a person surfs on a short board without the use of a tow rope. 

As the sport has grown, so have complaints about the powerful waves needed to wakesurf. Lake associations and environmental groups have raised concerns that wakesurfing waves can damage property, erode shorelines, and churn up lake beds while disrupting fish habitat. Some say the waves have knocked them off docks or chased canoers and kayakers out of the water.

A group of lake associations across Minnesota have tried to ban wakesurfing — or strongly restrict it. Even the wake boat industry urged Minnesota lawmakers to pass a bill to keep surfing 200 feet from shore, docks, swimmers and other boats.

But while the 200-foot regulation was based on research commissioned by the Water Sports Industry Association (WSIA), the study was not peer reviewed, and supporters of more stringent laws pointed to Canadian research that suggested a 200-foot buffer may not prevent wave impacts.

One lawmaker, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, instead introduced a measure that would have directed the St. Anthony Falls lab to study the effect of wakesurfing. And the lab itself asked for $420,000 over three years from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is funded by proceeds of the state lottery. But no plan for research or regulations was approved by the Legislature this year. 

Marr said the U still hoped to conduct research, and did not want to wait on legislative funding. So his team launched a crowdfunding program, which he said is a new approach for the St. Anthony Falls lab. While he has no guarantee of raising enough money, the U has made significant progress toward its goal so far. As of Friday, the lab had raised more than $58,000 of its $94,000 target. Marr said he expects to do roughly a year of research, starting in the late summer or early fall.

“I wouldn’t do crowdfunding for every project,” he said. “This one just seemed to have certainly from the public side a call for research and data.”

What the U will research — and what it won’t

The study commissioned by the WSIA focused primarily on wave energy, and project lead Clifford Goudey told a Senate panel earlier this year that energy from wakesurfing waves “start out very high but dissipate rapidly compared to other wakes.”

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“In all the cases that we tested, there is significant wave energy in the first 200 feet of travel,” he said. 

Research by the University of Quebec in Montreal published in 2014 said wake energy has “considerable” impact on shorelines from boats passing within 300 feet, and some impact up to nearly 1,000 feet. A 2015 study from Laval University in Quebec City also looked at the impact of wakesurfing in shallow water, finding the boats disturbed lake beds, promoting the development of algae, when operating in water up to 16 feet deep.

Marr said his research will focus on measuring the height and energy of waves made by various large boats, but also the depth and force of “propeller wash,” which is turbulence that is projected down into water that can stir up sediment and damage habitat. “Operating a wakesurf boat, they’re going like 11 miles an hour, very slow,” Marr said. “But they’re essentially plowing a lot of water, they’re very heavy.”

Marr said the U won’t answer every question about the effect of powerful boats. For instance, while they might measure the energy of wake turbulence in water and make some judgments about the impact boats could have on different types of lake beds in various water depths, the research won’t lead to more specific conclusions like effect on walleye spawning habitat in a particular lake.

The school had hoped for longer and more in-depth research with state money, though Marr said they will submit a proposal for funding next year.

Still, Marr said his research will be a “good first step” in characterizing the waves and disruption created by large boats. And that information can help inform lawmakers as they consider the future of wakesurfing, which has perhaps become the most controversial boating activity. The research will be more expansive than the WSIA study, Marr said, and the U plans to have it peer reviewed.

A coalition of lake associations, as well as environmental groups like the Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, have worked to raise money for the U project. And Marr said industry groups have also been helpful and cooperative, offering some cash contributions and feedback.

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In mid-July, Jill Sims, manager of Great Lakes Policy and Engagement for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said the organization was in contact with the U to discuss if it can participate in the project. “The recreational boating community has long spearheaded efforts to ensure boaters wake responsibly, and we are confident that any fair and unbiased research will show that tow sports are safe and responsible,” Sims said.

It’s likely Marr’s research will also inform debate over wakesurfing around the country. From Oregon and Idaho to New Hampshire — which released a report on wake boats in June after a state-led commission met eight times to scrutinize the issue — powerful boat waves are a source of controversy. 

“There’s groups wrestling with this across the country and we know some of the papers out of Canada and Australia, it’s even an international topic of interest,” Marr said. “This work will be read and consumed by others.”