By Kathleen Foody
Gannett Wisconsin Media
July 1, 2013

Interactive graphic and map created with Tableau Public

Expect to see law enforcement stepping up its presence this week along Wisconsin’s busiest waterways.

State and local laws are strictly enforced on the state’s most popular lakes and rivers, especially around major holidays such as July 4 when boat traffic can increase dramatically, a Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team review of law enforcement records since 2002 showed.

The review found that law enforcement officials across the state hand out the most tickets for boaters who don’t have the required number of life jackets on board. Other common violations include drunken boating and speeding.

Marathon County Sheriff Lt. Randy Albert, who coordinates his department’s patrols of the Wisconsin River, said holiday weekends often can mean more drinking. Police beef up water patrols during holidays just like they do road patrols, with the same goal of preventing accidents, he said.

“People seem to treat the holidays as if they’re a party,” Albert said.

The Department of Natural Resources and other law enforcement officials know higher traffic and a holiday atmosphere push people toward the water, and they focus patrols on rivers and lakes that draw crowds.

Both the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, which had the highest and second-highest number of tickets issued on a body of water, stretch miles across the state. Smaller bodies of water with high citation numbers, including Geneva Lake with the third-highest number of tickets, tend to be popular destinations.

The entire Lake Winnebago system, including four lakes and two rivers, ranked behind only the Wisconsin River for the number of tickets issued since 2002.

The ticket information collected by the DNR doesn’t include tickets issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, which patrols the bay of Green Bay, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Winnebago. Local law enforcement for those bodies of water did submit information.

Portage County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Retzki said the officers patrolling the Wisconsin River aren’t looking to punish people.

“We focus on alcohol-related issues, speed, those types can be dangerous,” Retzki said. “If they’re doing something illegal, we warn them or (issue a ticket) if it’s serious enough.”

From 2002 to 2012, more boaters were ticketed for not having the correct number of life jackets on board than any other violation on the water, a $162.70 fine. Law enforcement said their focus on jackets is supported by the number of people who die in Wisconsin waters without a vest on.

A Gannett Wisconsin Media review of accident records for Wisconsin found that 171 of the 203 people who died since 2002 in the state’s lakes or rivers weren’t wearing a flotation device.

Pam Dillon, education director for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators based in Kentucky, said life jackets “are the single most important piece of equipment” on a boat. Not having the required number is a black-and-white violation of the law, she said.

“I hate to say it this way, but it’s so apparent,” Dillon said. “If you need four life jackets and you only have three, it’s hard to argue in a court of law that they were not in (violation) of the law.”

Law enforcement officials attribute the spike in enforcement around holidays — Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day — to larger crowds. People want to spend time on the water, especially when the weather is good, and police plan more patrols when they anticipate crowded lakes or rivers.

“You want to have a presence when the majority of boaters are there, so that if they need help, you’re there,” Fond du Lac County Sheriff Lt. Bill Tadych said. His department patrols a portion of Lake Winnebago, where boaters received the 10th-highest number of tickets statewide since 2002.

That total represents only Lake Winnebago, not the entire system of lakes popular with boaters in the Fox Valley region.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which patrols Lake Michigan, the bay of Green Bay, Lake Superior and Lake Winnebago, can pull over boaters without a specific cause. DNR wardens and local law enforcement must have justification: for example, if a boat or personal watercraft doesn’t have up-to-date registration displayed, or the driver ignores rules about creating a wake in parts of the waterway where it’s prohibited.

Jeremy and Tracy Rieman of Mosinee said they’d prefer to see more enforcement on Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers. They were setting out on Lake Wausau to fish on Father’s Day with their 10-year-old son, David, and 9-year-old daughter, Calacey.

“You see a lot of people not respecting the law or even being courteous,” Jeremy Rieman, 41, said. Rieman said boaters often pass too closely — which isn’t against the law — but makes him uneasy. He also doubts everyone is up to date on their registration.

Operating a motorboat while over the legal limit for blood-alcohol content is the fourth most often cited violation in Wisconsin. The limit for boaters is .08 percent on the water just like on the road. Nearly 30 percent of fatal boating accidents reported since 2002 involved alcohol, which the Coast Guard considers drinking either by the victim or the driver of a watercraft involved.

Matt and Luanne Capodice of Weston said they feel safer on the water when police are visible. The couple have teenagers and feel better towing them on tubes when laws are being enforced, Matt Capodice, 53, said.

“I like having them out here,” he said. “They keep the partiers at bay. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”