High Water and Higher Tensions on Echo Lake

By Beacon Staff

Nearly 200 people attended a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks public hearing on Feb. 19 about proposed boating rules on Echo Lake. After almost two hours of testimony, it was clear that many in attendance opposed establishing a no-wake zone.

For the last two summers, Echo Lake, near Bigfork, has flooded because of a high snowpack and wet spring. Some residents say high water and waves from fast-moving boats have caused shoreline erosion and the only solution is to establish a no-wake zone when the lake is flooded.

But others argue people should take care of their own property.

“I don’t think I should lose my boating privileges because someone built too low,” said Scott Bruner, who has a home along Echo Lake.

In 2011, Montana FWP established a no-wake zone at the request of Flathead County because of health concerns over leaks from drain fields and septic tanks. In 2012 a no-wake zone was discussed by the Flathead County Commission and FWP, but ultimately denied because there was no health threat, which meant legally the agencies couldn’t restrict boats on the lake.

The lack of boating restrictions has irked some residents, including Susan Hutz, who is spearheading an effort to establish a no-wake zone when the water is high.

“I can’t watch this lake and the shoreline be destroyed by irresponsible boating,” she said.

Late last year, Hutz and three other neighbors gathered signatures and filed petitions proposing new rules for the lake. Those included establishing a no-wake zone on Echo, Abbott and Peterson lakes when water is high, or five feet or less from the survey pin located on the deck of the Causeway Bridge; designating the Causeway Bay as a no-wake zone year round; and banning the use of boat-wake enhancing equipment on Echo Lake.

Currently, a no-wake zone is in effect 200 feet from the shore.

In early January, FWP announced that it would consider the three proposals and set a public hearing for Feb. 19 at the Hampton Inn in Kalispell. Even before the meeting began, FWP wardens brought additional chairs into the room and a line was forming out the door.

Shortly after 7 p.m., officials from FWP, led by regional supervisor Jim Satterfield, gave a brief presentation about the proposals and history of high water on Echo Lake. FWP noted the water was especially high in 1997, 2011 and 2012.

Then the microphone was handed over to landowners, including some who came down from Canada to voice their concerns about the new proposals. Many opponents said even though their property had been damaged by the waves, they believed it was their responsibility to repair it.

“I’ve never complained or asked anyone for anything (when repairing my property),” said Ed Baldi, who has lived along the lake since 2002.

Kelly Lindahl wades the flooded causeway at Echo Lake while playing fetch with her dog in 2011. – File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

John Merrill, who has a home on Deer Island, said he thought establishing a no-wake zone during high water was unfair for people who enjoy boating on the lake. He likened the situation to someone building a home near a golf course.

“It’s like someone trying to shut down a golf course to golfing after a ball hits a window,” he said. “It makes no sense at all.”

Karen Kolar disagreed and likened the waves to “bowling balls.” She has lived on the lake for 30 years and helped with the no-wake petition after sections of her property washed away. She said if the shoreline erosion continued and the biology of the lake changed, that property values would drop. But opponents of the new rules said if boating were restricted, people would be less interested in living there and argued that there is not enough data to support the claim that boats are damaging the shore.

Satterfield made clear that FWP has not made a decision on what option it would recommend to the five-person Fish, Wildlife and Park’s commission. He also insisted that public comment was important and would be considered.

“This is on the table, (but) it is not done deal,” he said.

A decision is expected late this spring but those on both side of the issue say they are not about to give up, regardless of the outcome.

“If this goes through, I can promise you there will be a petition next year to reverse it,” said Kelly Wood, who has lived on the lake for 21 years.

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