Bluffton officials are correct in pointing out that it doesn't take town action to get a no-wake zone established in the May River.
But that doesn't mean the town shouldn't be involved. Establishing a no-wake zone in the vicinity of All Joy Landing and the Bluffton Oyster Co. landing was one of 11 priorities in the May River Waterbody Management Plan adopted in 2008. The issue goes back much farther than that, and five years seems a long time to wait to address a "priority."
Dock owners along the May River asked for help from the town in August. They complain that boats are regularly creating damaging wakes. They have good reason to complain. Wakes can toss around docks, boats tied to the docks and people standing on them.
And it's not just private property that gets hurt when boats travel too fast in our tidal creeks and rivers. More and more boats traveling our waterways mean more damaging wakes that erode shellfish beds and fragile, but critical, protective shorelines.
In 2007, the state Department of Natural Resources conducted a study on the impact of boat wakes in the New and Cooper rivers. The department found that some banks were eroding as much as 4 feet a year even in areas that didn't see a lot of boat traffic.
Researchers knew small creeks and estuaries changed shape naturally over time, but concerns about the impact of boats raised questions about how much they exacerbate erosion problems.
Mayor Lisa Sulka said of the residents' request for town help, "If each request is looked at the same, then there's no reason to stir the pot. For every 10 people who want a no-wake zone, I've got 10 more who don't."
Sulka and Town Council should be leading the way on appropriate no-wake zones, not avoiding the issue because someone objects.
Why does the town set priorities if only to ignore them?
A more streamlined process to get no-wake zones established is very welcome news. Previously, it took legislative action, a potentially tedious and acrimonious process.
Acrimony certainly was evident in 1998 when the legislature took up no-wake zones in Broad Creek on Hilton Head Island. Then-state Sen. Holly Cork of Hilton Head objected to every House bill that moved to the Senate, stalling more than 40 bills, after the House tabled her version of a no-wake measure that included a ban on boats anchoring within 100 feet of a private dock. Cork removed her objections once the no-wake bill was revived (without the no-anchoring provision).
Today, DNR is responsible for setting no-wake zones. The agency considers criteria that include channel size, boat traffic and water depth. When a request is received, a DNR investigator evaluates the area at high and low tides. A determination could be made within eight weeks. The zones are not automatic; the agency received 44 requests last year, but only granted three.
The town should help determine where no-wake zones would be most effective and help with the process of getting them established, especially since the town's Police Department would help enforce them.
Bluffton officials ought to consider the damage caused by excessive wakes as part of their push to protect the May River from environmental harm.
In the meantime, boaters should know that they are supposed to go no faster than idle speed within 50 feet of a moored or anchored vessel; a wharf, dock, bulkhead or pier; or a person in the water. That's state law, and it's too often ignored.