Elk Rapids Faces Major Decision on Powerboat Race

Photo courtesy of SpeedontheWater.com.

The author, Nikki Hayes, who grew up in Elk Rapids, Michigan, is a FLOW intern. Currently a junior at Loyola University Chicago (LUC), she has spent her life close to the Great Lakes.

While organizers are optimistic that an August powerboat race that would be hosted by Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor and the Elk River Marina will generate revenue for the community, others are concerned about environmental impacts.

The Elk Rapids Harbor Commission voted not to recommend the race to the Village Council on Monday, January 11. Noise, parking congestion and environmental impacts raised Commission concerns. The Village Council will consider the powerboat race proposal at an upcoming meeting.

The race would be a three-hour long event August 22 beginning at noon, part of a weekend of events. An estimated 45 boats would race in a 4.5-mile oval course in East Grand Traverse Bay. The event would be funded entirely by sponsors and local business owners. Supporters estimate the powerboat race could bring more than $1 million to the Elk Rapids community. They say the race would bring in the same crowds as Elk Rapids’ Harbor Days, around 8,000-10,000 people spectators.

The race is a scaled-down version of an Offshore Powerboat Association (OPA) event originally proposed to be held in Traverse City in 2018. The OPA event, in contrast, was expected to draw up to 100,000 spectators and be televised nationally. Traverse City commissioners turned down the proposal due to concerns about festival fatigue and doubts about whether the benefits of the race would outweigh negative impacts. Citizens expressed concern about the powerboats would negatively impact the environment.

Among the concerns cited by opponents of the race:

• A potentially major impact on the shoreline of the East Bay and across to the Old Mission Peninsula from waves, sound pollution, air pollution and possible water pollution.

• The impact on crowds and vacationers through the disruption of regular summer activities of people who come up north for a very different kind of experience.

• The use of Traverse Bay waters, impairing or threatening too many other protected uses of the commons to be worth the risks. Organizers should secure authority from the state under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act for water protected by the public trust doctrine, and the exclusion of the public during prime-time boating and swimming for a private association’s enjoyment, even if giving fair compensation to the village.

Studies conducted by the University of Wisconsin found an increase in algae growth and a kick up of sediments in lakes with high boat traffic, reducing water clarity. When sediments are kicked up by propellers, more minerals and compounds are added to the water, altering water chemistry and decreasing the suitability of water quality for both wildlife and humans. Changes in water quality are harmful to aquatic plants and animals with specific water parameter requirements. Chemicals and sediment disturbances from boats can cause differences in light, temperature, water clarity, pH levels and more.

Fish are also vulnerable to high boat traffic and boat engines. The turbulence from a boat motor can drastically change water temperatures by pushing warmer water from the surface downwards, directly affecting fish habitat and spawning beds. Many species of fish, such as lake trout, are extremely vulnerable to these impacts, as more and more motorboats are out on the water.

Powerboats have the potential to cause shoreline erosion. Soil particles along riverbanks or lakeshores can become detached and moved by water currents or strong wave energy. When powerboats produce a wake, this can create waves that move outward until they are scattered at the shoreline. Propeller turbulence from powerboats operating near shore areas may also corrode shorelines by disrupting the bottom. A study found that the boat’s wake energy is linked to elevated turbidity and shoreline erosion, particularly in narrow waterways.

Shoreline erosion can affect water clarity, shade submerged aquatic plants and provide nutrients for algae growth. The energy of a boat’s wake is an important factor in shoreline erosion.

It is crucial to keep our waters as clean as possible. A powerboat race could harm waters and aquatic life around Elk Rapids. If the powerboat race is held, logistics like trash cleanup, sanitation of public restrooms and public safety need to be taken seriously.  The decision whether to hold the event will have major community and environmental consequences.

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