Federally Proposed Lake Havasu Boating Restrictions Stir Up Controversy

Published: Thursday, June 23, 2016 - 4:38pm
Updated: Thursday, June 23, 2016 - 4:40pm
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(Photo by Andrew Wilkinson - CC BY 2.0)
Lake Havasu.

A battle between a federal agency and many in the community of Lake Havasu City raged in recent months, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a proposal to limit recreational boating on part of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge.

The department cited safety concerns and potential environmental impacts when it submitted a Compatibility Determination in April that would have extended no wake zones in the Refuge. Officials were met with such protest from the community, business leaders and lawmakers, they recently withdrew the proposal.

In May of 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) put some boating restrictions on about a half mile of the refuge after they said a safety issue was reported. This year, they proposed adding another 2 square miles of area to those restrictions, according to USFWS spokesperson Christine Tincher.

Tincher said there have been similar restrictions in place for a long time along about 17 miles of the waterway. She said, even though it’s a popular area for lots of people to go, that’s not why the refuge was established.

“The national wildlife refuge was established for migratory birds and habitats and having some shoreline for nesting,” Tincher said. “To ensure that that habitat was maintained and cared for.”

Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson said the proposal affected everyone – boaters, businesses, tourists – and none of them were happy about it.

“We get about 3, 3 1/2 million boating visitors a year in Lake Havasu and a lot of them use this area which they’re putting under restrictions,” he said. “People like to learn to ski up there. It’s a calm quiet area where you can take the kids and teach them to ski without being bothered by other boaters.”

He said putting restrictions on boating in the area would cripple the economy in Lake Havasu. The USFWS extended the comment period on this proposal to 60 days because of the response they were getting from the community and they held several public meetings about it. Johnson said thousands of people came to the one in Lake Havasu.

“It was the most people I’ve seen show up at a meeting,"  he said. "I’ve been in office 20 years."

Balancing boater, wildlife needs

The Havasu National Wildlife Refuge is about 3 percent of the whole lake, according to Tincher. It is located along the river that runs downstream into the Lake Havasu. So, it connects the lake with Needles, Fort Mohave and, eventually, all the way to Laughlin.

Johnson said boaters like to go up there to go to restaurants, or to travel up to Laughlin for the day.

“We have jet-ski rentals and boat rentals and people who rent dive gear,” he said. “And then we have the people who have tours where you can come out and take a tour up through the gorge and they explain to you about the animal life and the plant life and how everything came to be.”

Tincher said they got a complaint about safety because of boats speeding by and they were also concerned that they could affect the environment.

“Sometimes, even the shifting silt is going to impact the area. As migratory species are coming in and nesting along the shoreline, if you’re coming through at a great speed in some areas, then you could affect a nest that was in the tall grass,” she said. “What we’d be looking at is compatible uses that would basically be in harmony. So the impact to the wildlife of the habitat is minimal or can be done in balance.”

Last week, the USFWS withdrew the proposal. Tincher said, the agency received so many comments on this and so much community reaction – including from U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake – it will take a step back and improve communication with stakeholders and the community before making any decisions.

“I think that was the thing we learned from this, was people felt they were caught by surprise,” Tincher said. “Even those that were supportive of everything were concerned that there wasn’t enough time to discuss it and learn more about what’s going on.”

She said the agency heard the community and will take their concerns into account moving forward.

Johnson is still wary. He said he sees this as federal overreach and isn’t going to call it a win yet.

“We still need to be vigilant on this,” he said. “Because that’s always an old trick of government or anybody else to lay low for a while and then try to sneak it back in.”

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