5 mph speed limit enacted on Dickinson County lakes

Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Members of the Dickinson County Emergency Management Commission meet to consider regulations for watercraft traffic in the Iowa Great Lakes. Until further notice watercraft is prohibited from exceeding 5 p.m. on all lakes in Dickinson County. (Photo by Russ Mitchell)

The Dickinson County Emergency Management Commission used a quickly-called meeting Tuesday and decided to slow down boats on flooded lakes in Dickinson County.

Orleans Mayor Bill Maas and Dickinson County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Ehret both said they've heard from lakeshore residents who see high waves and say recreational boat travel is aggravating shoreline erosion in the Iowa Great Lakes.

"The water that we're seeing right now is high enough that it is saturating soils along shorelines on the Lakes," DNR Fisheries Biologist Mike Hawkins said. "Those saturated soils can easily erode and fall into the lakes. Also, it destabilizes some of those shorelines and makes the potential for collapses and other events of erosion to occur."

Under normal conditions, boats have a speed limit of 5 mph within 300 feet of shore. High water levels automatically triggered an expanded 600-foot "no wake" zone because of torrential rains in late June. The commission needed an emergency meeting because the recent storms technically left area lakes just shy of levels required for lake-wide 5 mph speed restrictions.

That changed as a result of action at Tuesday's emergency commission meeting.

"Basically what we're trying to do is save property and save people from injury," Maas said. "We've put in, effective immediately, that all vessels will not exceed 5 mph anywhere on the lakes in Dickinson County. The only one exception to that would be emergency vessels that will be displaying blue lights to get to an accident scene or whatever the case may be."

The commission's observations and the approaching holiday prompted them to enact the lake-wide travel restrictions.

"Sometimes when we put things together we don't necessarily have all of facts and figures and new facts and figures are always appearing," Maas said. "So, we had to make a ruling (Tuesday) contrary to what we had thought would be a perfect ruling before. I, myself didn't take it lightly because I'm one of those after teaching math and physics for forty years I rely on facts and figures and you should stick to your guns on things. But, in this particular case, I couldn't really sleep if I didn't think we did everything we could to make sure things were safe for the general public."

Iowa DNR Conservation officers also attended the meeting. The DNR's Jeff Morrison said getting the word out about the Tuesday's no-wake policy was going to be critical. He thinks most people will cooperate with restrictions if they receive the information.

"If it's going to work and if we're going to have an impact on protecting our shoreline, we're going to have to have compliance from the general public," Morrison said. "We'll be out there enforcing the rule as stated the best we can. That's going to be a lot of boats on the water but, bottom line is, we need good neighbors and folks that want to take care of the lake I really believe that, if most of the people know there's a special rule on the Lakes, they will work hard to comply with it."

The conservation officer said there isn't going to be a hard, fast rule regarding citations vs. warnings for watercraft exceeding the speed limit.

"Certainly citations are a strong probability," Morrison said.

Milford Mayor Steve Anderson said some shoreline property owners may need to make fundamental changes to their approach about lakeshore property.

"The thing that we've got to remember is that it's a natural lake system," he said. "We go in and modify the shorelines and there's people that will argue that riprap and all these things are the greatest thing in the world. But, when you go out and look at shorelines that have collapsed and you look at neighbors and they've got native plants or they've got willows and they're not collapsed they haven't fallen into the lake. But the people that have had the collapses are the ones that have landscaped it with rocks or whatever. It gets down to the point is: When are we going to say 'OK, enough is enough?' We have to put rules in place to protect those properties that have been modified and it's a natural system, so keeping the vegetation, keeping a six-foot buffer or so back from the shoreline is going to help protect those shores and it's going to help keep that dirt out of the lake and do the things that it needs to protect water quality."

Hawkins said water levels have leveled off since the storms in late June. But, he added, "it does take quite a bit longer come down once the levels reach this point we just have more water in the system, a greater volume, so there is an increased number of days that it takes to get back to normal."

"These rules give some level of protection from boat waves we can't stop all of the wind and wave action out on the Lakes," Hawkins said. "The wind is going to blow, but we can minimize the human impacts that we're seeing."

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