Months of high water levels and near-record June rainfall have not only dampened summer fun on the Lower St. Croix River but hurt marina business as well.
Marina operators from Stillwater to Hudson, Wis., heavily dependent on a strong summer season for a good slice of income, said last week that successive weeks of no-wake restrictions have slowed everything from boat launches to gas sales to the peddling of boating supplies.
“A really good weekend day on our gas dock is probably $4,000 in revenue, but if you look at the weekends from Memorial Day up to the Fourth, we were having days when we would only do $500 or $600,” said Rick Chapman, general manager of Sunnyside Marina in Stillwater. “Most of that was no-wake, but a lot of it was lousy weather on the weekends.”
Based on measurements at the Stillwater Lift Bridge, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recorded about 80 days this year when the St. Croix exceeded the 683-foot mean sea level (MSL) that triggers a temporary no-wake rule.
While it’s in effect, boats may not travel at speeds exceeding 5 mph.
“This year, unfortunately, the no-wake zone has been on almost the entire season, since March,” said Molly Shodeen, an area hydrologist at the DNR. “It was on for the fishing opener; it was on for Memorial Day; it was on for Fourth of July. It’s almost unprecedented to have the no-wake on for so long.”
The temporary no-wake zone ended July 9, when the river dropped below 683 feet.
By then, however, businesses were already suffering.
During the week of July 4th, several boaters who own slips at Bayport Marina scuttled plans to take off for Lake Pepin, said Cliff Lewis, general manager. Very few boaters ventured onto the river to watch the fireworks, an annual tradition.
People still came to the marina but did not take their boats out, Lewis said. Sales plummeted, with some days totaling no more than $1.
“What can you do?” Lewis said. “You’ve got to be open.”
Gas sales, too, were down as of early July, Lewis said. Despite the business lull, the 231-slip marina, which employs 10 people full time and 13 part time, plans no layoffs.
“The work we got to do is the same,” Lewis said. “We have to maintain the same hours. We have guests arriving. Unfortunately, you don’t know when somebody is going to show up. The gas dock is a ways from my office, so I can’t see it so I have to have somebody down there.”
The prolonged winter also kept owners from putting their boats in the water early this spring, cutting into boating supply sales.
“That really hurt, because the shop was quieter,” Lewis said. “If they don’t put them in, they can’t work on them and you don’t make any money.”
Sunnyside Marina in Stillwater has been suffering, too, Chapman said. Not only did it contend with the long winter and no-wake restrictions, but weekend traffic to and from the marina has slowed because of congestion caused by the construction of the new St. Croix River bridge nearby.
The 254-slip marina has not had to close for construction but does have 17 vacancies this year, Chapman noted.
“The last time I had this kind of vacancy numbers was 2009,” he said.
Sunnyside attracts larger boats, averaging 40 feet in length. A boat with a pair of 100-gallon tanks can rack up $1,000 for gas, typically priced at more than $5 per gallon.
On the Wisconsin side, business was even worse.
River water rose so high that the 300-slip St. Croix Marina in Hudson had to shut down 90 percent of its property, including the gas dock, general manager Jeff Holmes said.
The marina suspended gas sales until July 4th, Holmes said.
“We’re hoping that we have two or three good months and people can enjoy the weather and … that people can enjoy the beauty of the St. Croix River,” he added.
The DNR issued no-wake rules in 1986 for the 52-mile stretch of the St. Croix from the dam at Taylors Falls to Prescott, Wis., to reduce erosion and protect boaters.
Boats traveling at normal speeds through high water can damage the shoreline, including the river islands that boaters love to visit, Shodeen said. A 1990s National Park Service and Washington Conservation District study showed that heavily trafficked islands have less shoreline vegetation and suffer significant erosion, she added.
“We measured how a boat wake curls and how much sediment is dislodged compared with a wind-driven wave,” Shodeen said. “A boat wave curls harder and displaces more sediment.”
Some islands in the St. Croix have disappeared due to erosion while others have shrunk, she said.
High water moving at an accelerated pace also uproots shoreline trees and other vegetation, sending them downriver below the surface and endangering boaters.
Those dangers appear to have passed for this season, Shodeen said. She believes the St. Croix will remain below flood level for the remainder of the boating season, which ends in October.
For marina operators, that’s good news, indeed.
Business at Sunnyside and Bayport has picked up since the no-wake restrictions were lifted, marina managers said.
“The thing with boaters, they are pretty resilient, you know?” Lewis said. “When the sun comes out, they’re out boating.”
Nancy Crotti is a Twin Cities freelance journalist.