Intoxicated boaters flocked to Lake Minnetonka for the July 4th holiday weekend, inundating first responders with calls during the busiest weekend of the year.
No deaths were reported on the Twin Cities’ most popular lake, but some local leaders are worried that Minnetonka’s party scene is out of control, with not enough patrols and too much underage drinking and intoxicated boating.
“We had ambulances nonstop,” said Gabriel Jabbour of Orono, who is on the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District board, which regulates use of the lake. “The community is pretending it’s not happening. You should be able to go out there and have a peaceful, safe time.”
Authorities responded to 75 calls on Lake Minnetonka last weekend, including 17 alcohol-related medical calls and one 42-year-old man who dove into shallow waters on Cruiser’s Cove and was hospitalized with a serious spinal cord injury, according to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Water Patrol.
The office attributed a high volume of calls to irresponsible alcohol consumption and warm weather drawing larger crowds to the 14,000-acre lake. The county also had help from firefighters from Excelsior, Long Lake and St. Bonifacius and first responders from Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale.
“It was definitely one of the busiest years I’ve ever been on,” said Long Lake Assistant Fire Chief John Hall, who responded to emergencies such as unconscious intoxicated boaters and a woman who had cut her leg on a propeller of a boat that backed into her. “We did the best we could.”
About 10,000 boats dock on Lake Minnetonka and 61,000 boats launch into it, according to a 2010 study. The Water Patrol, which has eight deputies along with special deputies who are civilian volunteers, responds to 103 lakes and three rivers in the county besides Minnetonka. The state Department of Natural Resources also helps out, but only has five officers working multiple west metro lakes.
“The safety of the lake is always Number 1,” said Dennis Klohs of Minnetonka Beach, a conservation district board director, adding: “Funding is always a challenge.”
While the Water Patrol didn’t have data available from past years, Jabbour said the last two weekends were the worst he’s ever seen it in four decades of living and running four marinas on Lake Minnetonka. As a result, a special conservation district meeting will be held Thursday to discuss concerns.
Not any busier?
Elsewhere, the state had one boating death over the weekend in Cass Lake, which the DNR said is a suspected drunken-boating incident. So far this year, there have been five boating fatalities in Minnesota, according to the DNR, which said that alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents in Minnesota and nationally.
Over the years, boating fatalities statewide have gone down slightly and boating while intoxicated citations cut in half from 2012 to 2014.
“The numbers of BWIs have dropped tremendously,” said Lt. Jackie Glaser, who supervises a west metro team for the DNR, including Lake Minnetonka. “I’m hoping that’s gone down because we’ve gotten the message out we have zero tolerance for it.”
However, she said last weekend was not out of the norm for lakes like Minnetonka and Prior Lake. “This was a typical Fourth of July for us,” she said.
There was only one boating-while-intoxicated arrest on Lake Minnetonka, according to Hennepin County, and no deaths there or on any other county lake.
“The Fourth of July weekend is the busiest time of the year for my deputies and volunteers, but they always come prepared,” Sheriff Rich Stanek said in a statement. “They worked quickly and professionally to resolve each incident to make sure they were ready to respond to whatever call came next.”
A history of issues
Lake Minnetonka has long been a popular spot for boaters. Every summer weekend, people congregate in a haven of heavy drinking and booming music in Cruiser’s Cove next to Big Island like vehicles tailgating at a football game.
In 2000, the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District installed lanes in the cove restricting anchoring so law enforcement could get through, instead of restricting rafting — the tying-together of dozens of boats so partyers can easily hop between them.
More buoys were added and lanes were modified after an intoxicated man fell into the water and died on July 4, 2003, an incident during which some boaters refused to move for medics. Since then, authorities have said parties have been more under control.
Concerns resurfaced recently after last year’s summer, when speeding boaters caused erosion and safety concerns in the record high-water levels. As a result, the conservation district approved a $33,000 grant to the Water Patrol to add a deputy patrolling the lake during peak boating hours through Labor Day and a satellite station in Shorewood to patrol the lower lake.
Now, the conservation district’s board will meet Thursday to discuss if more measures are needed.
“I don’t know if it’s chronic or just situational,” Klohs said of the busy weekend. “I do believe this year in general [boaters] have been well-behaved except for the last two weekends.”