Wolf River local governments struggling with safety issues
Fremont, Wis. – The Lower Wolf River is one of Wisconsin’s most
valuable natural resources, but it also has become a source of
conflict and controversy.
In recent years, encounters among various user groups –
particularly between Fremont and Lake Poygan – have become
increasingly hazardous and, at times, confrontational.
“There’s less courtesy on the river now,” said Fremont Village
Board President Dan Sambs. “The river is also less safe. It’s at a
point now where people feel something needs to be done.”
DNR Conservation Warden Jeff Knorr has warned repeatedly of
safety issues on the river, resulting from larger boats operating
at higher speeds. Safety issues are further complicated by
increased traffic and the wide variety of uses along the river.
Residents have told Knorr they’re no longer able to fish off
their docks, while others are afraid to let their children swim
near their docks.
“With all of these things – the accident investigations, the
arrest history, and other things that go on, and the complaints – I
know there’s a problem,” Knorr said.
Many are uncertain, though, about who bears responsibility for
ensuring the rights and safety of river users, including those who
live and work along its banks. The state, counties, and towns all
have some authority to enact regulations to protect the resource
Wisconsin lakes and rivers are public resources, owned in common
by all state citizens under the state’s Public Trust Doctrine. All
state citizens have the right to boat, fish, hunt, ice skate, and
swim on navigable waters.
Wisconsin law also recognizes that owners of lands bordering
lakes and rivers – “riparian” owners – hold rights in the water
next to their property, including the use of the shoreline,
reasonable use of the water, and a right to access the water.
However, the state Supreme Court has ruled that when conflicts
occur between the rights of riparian owners and public rights, the
public’s rights are primary.
Chapter 30 of the Wisconsin State Statutes, which regulates use
of navigable waters, also governs operation of motorboats and other
motorized watercraft on the Wolf River.
It imposes limits on noise of motors (86 decibels),
blood-alcohol concentration of boat operators (.08), and requires
no-wake operation within specified distances from docks, piers,
rafts, other boats, and swimmers in designated swimming areas.
Additionally, the statute includes the somewhat vague language
prohibiting operation of a motorboat at a speed greater than is
“reasonable and prudent” and prohibiting operation in a “negligent
or reckless manner so as to endanger that person’s life, property
or person, or the life, property or person of another.”
Knorr had issued a citation for “imprudent” speed in connection
with a collision that resulted in injuries. When a judge dismissed
the citation because the crash didn’t occur in a no-wake area, or
where a speed limit was in effect, Knorr believed it was time to
redefine that part of the statute or look at laws to address the
issue of speed.
Because the Wolf River is a federal waterway, the state could
implement changes to the statute and the communities along the
river would have to comply. But when Knorr took up the issue with
the DNR, he was told the agency would not ask for a law change
because of one unfavorable court decision.
Knorr then approached the local governments about creating new
ordinances to address the issues. Since only the town of Wolf River
in Winnebago County is affected, county officials have left that
township to deal with the issue on its own.
But there are four townships, one village, and one city in
Waupaca County along the river. After more than a year of study,
the county’s Legislative, Safety and Judiciary Committee drafted an
ordinance that included:
€ A top speed of 45 mph in areas not marked as no-wake;
€ Prohibiting watercraft or motorboats from coming within 50
feet of any dock, pier, or anchored and occupied boat at speeds
above no-wake, and;
€ Prohibiting towing – such as tubing or waterskiing – from noon
to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays.
However, because budget concerns and opposition from businesses
and other groups left its passage much in doubt, the ordinance was
withdrawn before it could be voted on by the full county board.
The village of Fremont, the town of Fremont, and the town of
Wolf River all have no-wake ordinances that mirror one another –
basically weekends and holidays – though the village wanted to
extend its by 12 hours so it would begin at noon on Fridays. The
town of Wolf River passed a similar 12-hour extension, contingent
upon all three entities having the same kind of extension. Town of
Fremont officials, however, didn’t think it was necessary to make
That left the status quo of current state law and local no-wake
ordinances as the only tools officers have to address speed,
hazardous wakes, and other safety issues on the river.
“What you have here is everyone’s got their own picture of what
they want on the river,” Knorr said. “And everyone’s taking a bite
out of the apple. Unfortunately, the apple isn’t big enough
The Tri-County Powerboat Alliance, which represents area
pleasure boaters, property owners, and businesses generally opposes
speed limits, and has called for stronger enforcement of existing
laws. But it also recognizes the responsibility individual boaters
bear for safety on the river.
The group is in favor of continued boater safety instruction and
refresher courses and posting signs warning against unsafe boating
“We’re also looking into the possibility of setting up a video
camera and recording system to document inappropriate or unsafe
speeds,” said TCPA President Kathy Groves.
In addition, conservation wardens in New London, Shiocton, and
Winneconne patrol the river. “I’ve requested federal boating
dollars to hire deputy wardens to assist us,” Knorr said.
The Winnebago County and Waupaca County sheriff’s departments
each have one boat patrolling the river.
Cuts in the past four budgets also have resulted in curtailed
patrol efforts by Waupaca County, according to patrol captain
Terrance Wilz. In previous years, one boat patrolled from Gill’s
Landing to the Winnebago County line, while a second patrolled from
Gill’s Landing to New London.
“The second boat is not being used due to its deteriorating
condition,” Wilz said. “The request for a replacement has been cut.
Our patrol hours have been cut in half.”
Wardens have tried to fill the void. There was a warden patrol
on Aug. 23 between Orihula and Lake Poygan. Wardens from Green Bay,
Shawano, and Madison came to assist Knorr.
Ten wardens, one intern, and one water guard deputy warden ran
radar, range finders, sound meters, video cameras, and issued
citations. Twelve citations were issued – three for noise, five for
speed, and one each for no fishing license, undersized fish,
no-wake violation, and bow riding.
On Sunday, Sept. 6, 13 wardens patrolled between Lake Poygan and
Orihula for loud boats that were generating complaints. A total of
17 citations will result from this effort, most of which were for
noise or speed violations.
“I believe we cited the loudest boat I have ever witnessed. It
was 122dB going past me, and in excess of 93dB for the stationary
test,” Knorr said. “The boat dealer will be receiving the 17th
citation for selling this boat.”
Wardens who have not worked the area before told Knorr they were
surprised by the non-stop traffic and couldn’t believe parents
would be pulling kids on tubes on this busy waterway.
“I plan to keep this up and continue to organize (warden
patrols) in the future,” Knorr said. “We hope to continue them
during peak times in complaint areas and bring in extra officers as
they are available.”