State moving to restrict some uses on Wailua River

It was around a decade ago when someone riding on an inner tube behind a powerboat was fatally injured, impaled in thick bushes along the side of the Wailua River.

After that incident, the state started looking at ways to control the potentially dangerous situation of people being towed behind boats who have no way of steering whatever it is they’re riding on.

The results are incorporated into proposed amendments to state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR) sections of Hawaii Administrative Rules pertaining to uses along the Wailua River.

The proposal as last written included language that would effectively ban the common practice of powerboats pulling people on tubes, surfboards, bodyboards, kneeboards, or other floating things that can’t easily be steered, or aren’t physically attached to the rider, explained Vaughan Tyndzik, DLNR DOBOR Kaua’i district manager.

“If you can stand on it and you can steer it,” and it is somehow attached to the user so it won’t become a projectile if the rider falls, it will be allowed, but only on the third of the river closest to the ocean, he said.

That lowest third of the river is also proposed to be the only area allowed for water skiing, something the Kauai Ski Club members are upset about. They have been used to skiing nearly the entire four-mile length of the river.

Greg Allen lives on the river, and is an avid water skier and club member who thinks the state plan stinks.

He recently took a disabled boy for a ride on an inner tube, and said “that would be lame” if that activity were outlawed and Allen would have to tell the boy he can no longer ride, he said.

Allen spearheaded a petition drive proposing to enforce existing river rules, establish one lane on one side of the river for kayaks, and ban commercial kayaks on weekends.

Tyndzik acknowledges that some users, including kayakers and water skiers, don’t all necessarily know or obey rules of the road while on the river, and there have been collisions between kayaks and Fern Grotto cruise barges.

Some sort of regulation is needed because of the narrowness of the river (200 feet wide at the widest), and the broad range of users (canoe paddlers, kayakers, water skiers, fishermen, crabbers, barges, swimmers, others), Tyndzik said.

“We have some traffic separation schemes that we’re trying to graciously fit in to all the users, and I think that’s the hardest factor,” Tyndzik said.

There are some parts of the river that “are very, very tight waters,” not more than 100 feet wide in some upriver sections.

The idea behind the rules is to “make it so that all parties fit in” on the river, he said. “The safety, health and welfare” of all users is what the state had in mind when formulating the “conservative limits” set forth in the proposed rules, he said.

The final public meeting on the draft rules happened on Kaua’i at the end of last month, but if any substantive changes were offered at that meeting, and deemed worthy of inclusion in the proposed rules, the DLNR staff would have to re-write the proposed rules and start the public-hearing process all over again.

That would take another six months, one DLNR spokesman said.

If no substantive changes are incorporated, the rules could have the force of law within around two months, after approval by the state attorney general, said Lynn McCrory, Kaua’i member of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

Originally, there were two Kaua’i public meetings planned for the rules, but when the first meeting drew only a few people, McCrory asked for a third meeting, the one last month, where several people attended representing many river user groups, she said.

Allen said his club proposed substantive changes to the proposed rules, including an offer to install and maintain a buoy system letting kayakers know exactly where they are supposed to be paddling up and down the river.

Petitions with 300 signatures were turned over to DLNR staff, with the accompanying letter suggesting that skiing being restricted only to the wide area near the mouth of the river would cause more congestion, especially on weekends, at the area that includes the north boat launch and south marina entrance.

The letter suggests allowing water skiing where it is currently practiced, that being the entire four miles of the river, as a way of reducing congestion along the ocean-most section of the river.

The DLNR plan would restrict skiing to the lower 800 yards of the river, a distance the club says is covered in 45 seconds by a boat doing the proposed river speed limit of 36 miles per hour.

Many smaller powerboats don’t go fast enough to pull stand-up water skiers, so they pull inner tubes and other things at slower, safer speeds, the letter says.

The state’s charge is to ensure this navigable waterway remains available to all who wish to use it, Tyndzik noted.

Now, only commercial kayaks and the barges need permits to operate on the river, he continued. There are 12 kayak companies now permitted to use the river, and the modified rules propose allowing 14 companies, Tyndzik said.

As many as 300 kayaks may float along the river on any given day, the club letter states.

Allen said restricting ski boats to the bottom 800 yards of the river would cut in half the area enjoyed by skiers on the river, making the upper portion of the river something akin to private property for the permitted barges and commercial kayaks alone.

Tyndzik’s proposal to limit skiing on the slalom course to weekends only also rubs skiers the wrong way, but Tyndzik is charged with enforcing rules pertaining to navigable waterways, he said.

That means permanent fixtures like slalom floats require lighting, or need to be installed at daybreak and removed at nightfall, he said.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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