Kathy Byron

The first full week of the 2021 General Assembly session included frustration with Virginia’s performance on COVID vaccine distribution and progress on legislation.

According to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, Virginia’s performance in getting Virginians inoculated has been among the nation’s worst. This situation

provoked ample discussions in both chambers. I delivered remarks on the situation and the search for solutions during our Zoom “floor” sessions this week.

As evidenced by Virginia’s poor performance, the Northam Administration did not have a plan, or at least did not have a workable plan, to administer vaccines quickly. Our area delegation, including Senators Newman and Peake, and Delegates Fariss, Walker, and me, saw this problem coming late last year. Consulting with Centra Health and our local Health

Department on the best way to address this problem, we contacted Virginia’s Health Commissioner and the Governor’s Office with workable proposals to prevent the logjam. Although our proposals weren’t incorporated then, they’re entitled to a closer look now. With subcommittees and committees meeting daily, legislation is starting to advance through the House. One of my bills, House Bill 2083, has already been approved in subcommittee and committee, and is now before the entire House.

The bill would require anyone wake surfing on Smith Mountain Lake to stay at least 150 feet away from a dock, pier, boathouse, boat ramp, or shoreline.

I submitted this bill at the request of the Bedford and Franklin County Boards of Supervisors, the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Council, and the Tri-County Lake

Association. The provisions of the bill were developed by stakeholder groups who participated in a 2017 effort spearheaded by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) to reach a consensus solution to an enduring safety, environmental, and property rights issue.

This is not the first attempt to resolve this issue. In 2018, DGIF brought a bill forward that had consensus from the stakeholder groups for a 150 feet standard, but that bill included provisions that would have affected other water safety and recreational activities. As a result, it failed.

This bill exclusively addresses wake surfing. Wake surfing involves someone trailing most times behind a wakeboat on a short surfboard. The surfer starts out on a rope connected to the boat, but then lets go to “surf” through the “waves”. After dropping the rope, the surfer may ride the wave as long as 5 minutes. More advanced wake surfers can perform tricks, spins, and stunts.

By necessity, wake surfing involves making your own waves. How, you might wonder, can a motorboat create ocean-like waves on a calm lake? Wake surfing boats are generally high-end, expensive v-drive watercraft designed and specifically weighted to maximize wake. So, we have a boat designed to create a prominent wake on calm waters at low speeds so that people can surf the resulting waves. Why does this create an issue for Smith Mountain Lake?

Smith Mountain Lake is home to 21,000 permanent residents. Although the lake covers 20,000 acres, wake surfers tend to prefer using its coves, keeping them away from the busy channel. But, those coves are also where resident property owners with docks live, and many are narrow. By repeatedly cycling through the coves, the current and wave forces resulting from wake surfing boats in close proximity to the shoreline causes extensive damage to property and the shoreline, as well as creating safety hazards to swimmers, paddleboarders, canoers, fisherman, and people on their dock. Wake boats with multiple ballasts can weigh 8-10,000 lbs. You put that much weight in a boat, it can create 4 ½-5 ft waves. This is creating big problems and as you can imagine lots of division.

In 2017, DGIF’s stakeholder workgroup included representatives from lake communities, Boat USA, the Coast Guard, the Water Sports Industry Association, the US Power Squadron, the Chamber, area marinas, and many others. The 200 foot setback originally featured in House Bill 2083 is a recommendation of the Water Sports Industry Association, posted on their website as a minimum 200 ft. from structures, and is based on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study that determined it takes 200 feet for a wake-generated wave to dissipate.

I remain hopeful that this compromise will be accepted. This battle is not going away and the alternatives are much more restrictive. Many states have taken much harsher action toward the practice of wake surfing through the regulatory process.

Like so many pieces of legislation, House Bill 2083 represents a compromise that aims to resolve a conflict by creating a balance. It will protect the interests of property owners and waterfront communities, while still allowing wake surfers to enjoy their unique, innovative, and fun recreational pursuit.