Stay Safe While Enjoying Wisconsin Waterways Over July 4th Holiday

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Boating Fun! - WDNR PhotoMADISON – During a typical Fourth of July holiday, more than 1 million Wisconsin residents and visitors take to the state’s abundant lakes and rivers to boat, fish, swim and paddle around. Following widespread flooding in June across southern Wisconsin, people need to exercise even more care than usual, water quality, health and recreation safety experts say.

Water currents can be deceptively strong and there’s a lot of debris in the water. Beaches and other recreational waters can become polluted by sewage, animal wastes, petroleum products, fertilizers and other contaminants. Debris can wash into waters, shorelines can become unstable and give away, and high currents can become a danger.

“Probably the most important advice we can give people this year is to know before you go,” says Roy Zellmer, DNR boating administrator. “Know the conditions of the water you want to recreate on before you get there and take appropriate precautions.

“Beyond that, wearing life jackets, assuring the boat driver is sober, and knowing and following the “rules of the road” on the water are the other top three things boaters can do to keep themselves, their families and others safe on the water.”

Emergency slow-no-wake rules are still in effect on many southern waters, including the Madison chain of lakes.

The added organic material delivered during the flooding creates conditions ripe for another water quality concern, the growth of excessive blue-green algae, if the weather heats up. Excessive levels of blue-green algae are a concern because they can produce toxins harmful to people and animals. People should look for the telltale blue-green scum near the water’s surface before swimming or allowing domestic animals to drink.

The good news, however, is that even in the south, lake and river conditions vary greatly, and fully three-quarters of Wisconsin’s 15,081 lakes are in northern Wisconsin, which didn’t suffer the flooding.

So Wisconsinites – or the 60 percent of adults who identify themselves as swimmers, the 48 percent who say they fish and the 40 percent who say they boat, in a recent Wisconsin recreation participation survey (pdf; 186kb) – still have plenty of great opportunities to get out and enjoy Wisconsin’s great lakes and rivers this holiday.

More information about the four main steps people can take to stay safe on Wisconsin’s water over the long holiday follow.

Know water conditions before you go
Boaters: be aware that slow no-wake rules are in place on the Madison lakes and a number of other waters in southern Wisconsin. Stay away from rivers running out of their banks. The National Weather Service provides river observations and other information on their web site. The U.S. Geological Survey provides current and historical stream flow information, although the site is a little more technical.

Swimmers: the state’s beach health web site [] offers the most up-to-date source of information on the status of beaches regularly monitored and results reported on the web site, says Bob Masnado, who leads DNR’s beach monitoring program. It lists conditions at 118 public Great Lakes beaches in Wisconsin and more than 100 inland beaches. Local health departments have the sole authority to determine if a beach is open or closed and are responsible for monitoring their water quality, so if the beach you want to visit is not on that web site, please contact local health authorities (pdf).

While blue-green algae has been a problem on some Wisconsin waters for years, algal blooms in ponds and lakes seem to be occurring more frequently, according to Dr. Mark Werner, of the Department of Health Services Division of Public Health. Avoiding contact with bloom material and following posted beach and lake advisories will help ensure that blue-green algae won’t get in the way of enjoying the state’s lakes and beaches, Werner says. And keep the dog away from blue-green algae blooms, too. Learn more about visible signs that a lake or river may have excessive blue-green algae and how to protect yourself against it.

Top three boating tips
The July 4th weekend is regarded as the busiest boating weekend of the year in a state that had more than 617,000 motorized boats registered in 2007, and several hundred thousand more nonmotorized boats on the water, including canoes and kayaks.

Year-in and year-out, failure to wear life jackets, or “personal flotation devices” and operating a boat while intoxicated, or being on a boat operated by an intoxicated person, are leading causes for boating fatalities, Zellmer says.

Wisconsin Boating Regulations Wisconsin’s Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) law prohibits the operation of a motorboat while under the influence of an intoxicant. This law, and other boating laws, are found in Wisconsin Boating Regulations (pdf) available at DNR offices and on the DNR Web site.

The other main precautions boaters should take are to make sure they abide by are boat traffic rules and a new law requiring that anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1989 have a boating safety education certificate to operate a motorboat on Wisconsin’s waterways, Zellmer says.

Two of the key traffic rules to know are: if a boat is approaching your vessel from your starboard (right) side in a crossing situation, the boat on the right is the privileged boat and has the right-of-way. The boat on the left shall slow and/or change course to cross behind the privileged boat to avoid collision.

And this: When a motorboat and a boat propelled entirely by sail or muscle power are proceeding in such a direction as to involve risk of collision, the motorboat shall yield the right-of-way.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON BOATING SAFETY CONTACT: Roy Zellmer (608) 264-8970 or the following Regional Recreational Safety Specialists: Christopher Wunrow, Spooner (715) 635-4112; Jeffrey Dauterman, Antigo (715) 623-4190 ext. 3108; William Yearman, Eau Claire – (715) 839-3717; April Dombrowski, Oshkosh – (920) 303-5443; John Bronikowski, Sturtevant – (262) 884-2383; Jeremy Cords, Green Bay – (920) 662-5129; or John Plenke, Waukesha – (262) 574-2163