Commission rejects request to ban party barges in West Okoboji bay

Miller's Bay on West Okoboji Lake was packed July 4, 2020. (Photo courtesy of David Thoreson).

Hundreds of boaters still will be able to anchor their boats and tie them together to form party barges near shore in Miller’s Bay on West Okoboji Lake, a governor-appointed state commission ruled Thursday.

Neighbors of Miller’s Bay had asked the Natural Resource Commission to ban boaters from anchoring or tying their boats together within 300 feet of the shore, the area that includes residents’ docks.

The petitioners said patrol boats have had a hard time getting into the bay on weekends to enforce regulations. They feared swimmers near the docks might get hurt.

Michael McFarlin of Milford, who lives near the bay, submitted the petition on behalf of himself and 21 other neighbors.

“There are literally hundreds of boats tied up outside the swimming and docking area for residents, and it’s incredibly dangerous, and not safe for swimmers (near) docks,” McFarlin told the commission. “Those coming in and out of the bay come very close to the docks.”

McFarlin added that many boaters violate the lower speed limit within 300 feet of shore.

“We just feel that something is going to happen of a serious nature, and we’d like to get out in front of this,” McFarlin added.

Michael Lawler of Wahpeton said he sent a registered letter to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 2017 raising concerns about the issues, and never received a response.

“There is serious congestion” in Miller’s Bay, Lawler said. “We need serious and constructive dialogue with the DNR to find acceptable solutions before we have a tragedy.”

The petitioners said that if boats could not anchor or be tied together within 300 feet of shore, “We could still swim near our docks, remove our boats from our hoists and provide a clear lane for boats transiting in or out of the bay.” They suggested fines for violations.

State law grants the public access to the areas around docks. DNR has authority over what happens on the water up to the high-water line of each public lake.

State Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, introduced a bill in 2016 to restrict boaters from tying watercraft together close to shore, with various exemptions. The legislation died in committee.

Trace Kendig, law enforcement chief for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, recommended the commission deny the request. He said the ban would prevent fishing, houseboat mooring, and boat-based swimming in the area. He added that officers at the lake have rarely had trouble getting boaters to move their watercraft if necessary.

Miller’s Bay tends to be the most crowded of the bays in Iowa Great Lakes chain, especially on summer weekends. A large gathering of maskless boaters there July 4 this year during a coronavirus pandemic drew criticism from former Okoboji City Council member David Thoreson and others.

On Thursday, DNR law enforcement officials said the ban would in effect make the public bay a private zone for those who own property along the shore.

The commission unanimously rejected the petition.

Several commissioners, including Kim Francisco of Ankeny, suggested the DNR staff negotiate with residents to find a way to address the problems short of the ban. No other spot on Iowa’s public lakes has restrictions like those proposed by the Okobojians, they noted.

“I think the department needs to sit down with the local people there and see if we can work out some kind of compromise that’s a little less restrictive,” Francisco said.

Kendig said he is willing to work on a solution.