Comparison of two lakes
By Jane Harrison
Lake Norman, known as the “inland sea” of North Carolina, shares many traits with Georgia’s Lake Lanier. Located near Charlotte, N.C., the state’s largest body of water covers slightly less acreage than Lanier, situated near Atlanta. Bordered by four counties, Norman’s 520 miles of shoreline stretch from an affluent, more populated southern region into a rural northern realm. On summer weekends, Norman’s waters churn with boats as families, anglers and partiers recreate on the lake reputed to hold a record for boat tie-ups. Dragon boat teams paddle at a local park and sails billow on the blue.
But the similarities halt starkly with a couple of dire statistics: Lake Norman officials recall only three drownings there since 2004; on Lanier there have been 50. Nine people have died in boating incidents on Lake Norman in the past nine years, compared with 26 on Lanier. “We’ve never had numbers like that at Lake Norman,” said lake enforcement officer Randy Echerd, who patrols the Duke Energy lake with the Mecklenburg-Charlotte marine unit.
A look at the differences in the two lakes may shed some light on how one keeps death at bay. Lanier, sometimes labeled as a watery “Wild West,” revels in public access and freedom. On Lake Norman, the tragedies that have taken lives or maimed individuals have prompted restrictive actions to avoid further casualties and litigation for the counties and agencies that control public access to the lake.
After a double drowning eight years ago, county parks on Lake Norman closed their swimming areas, fearing potential lawsuits. When a person renting a boat for a popular Lake Bash “raft–up” backed over a woman, causing the boat propeller to slash off an arm and breast, lake officials acted to restrict raft-ups and propose new rules for boat rentals.
The five-person Lake Norman Marine Commission, appointed by neighboring counties, has the helm on all matters relating to public safety and recreation. Its grasp indirectly shut down the Lake Bash last summer, helped achieve boater education laws, and is currently acting to strengthen regulations on rental boats.
The biggest contrast between the two lakes has to do with accessibility, particularly to swimming areas. Lake Norman has only one public swimming area, located at Lake Norman State Park. After a drowning there in 2011, public outcry resulted in funding for a lifeguard last summer. There were no deaths.
By contrast, more than 20 public swimming areas on Lake Lanier draw thousands of visitors on summer weekends. There are buoy lines, loaner life jackets, throw jugs, and rangers promoting water safety, but no lifeguards.
The Georgia lake is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which boasts at being the largest federal provider of outdoor and water based recreation in the U.S. Along with the swimming areas, more than 40 boat ramps and numerous campgrounds are available at Corps, county and city parks on Lanier. There are half as many public boat ramps on the Carolina lake.
On Lake Norman, “unless you’ve got a friend who lives on the lake or have a boat, that’s the only way you can get in,” said Marlah Ebert, an avid boater who’s lived 20 years on Lake Norman. The lack of accessibility “is definitely a beef here,” she said. But, she added, more access can mean more trouble.
Despite limited access, Ebert said, plenty of boaters already find their way to the water. “(Lake Norman) is very, very busy on weekends. There are definitely people drinking too much and people who don’t know how to operate their boats or the rules of the water … but over the years it’s been pretty darn safe, considering the amount of usage it gets.”
She added that law enforcement from at least four different entities cuts down on risky behavior, particularly boating under the influence on the southern end of the lake, where “people know they better not drink and boat.” (Both states have similar BUI laws).
Ron Shoultz, chairman of the Lake Norman Marine Commission, said his agency has looked into opening more parks with lake access and swimming areas, as has the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. He added that surrounding counties also have some ability to create lake access. But he said “huge public outcry (after a double drowning about eight years ago) stifled public swimming areas. Every one wants them manned, but there are no funds to do that.”
The public’s voice also fueled the 2010 North Carolina requirement for boater education for boat operators younger than 26. Shoultz said he’d like to close some loopholes in the new statute, particularly the laxity for rental boat operators. He said it was a man who had never piloted a boat in his life who backed a rented pontoon over a woman at the 2011 Lake Bash. He was reportedly trying to position the pontoon for a tie-up with other boats. “I wish the boater education law had more teeth then it does,” Shoultz said. In the meantime, the commission has sunk its own teeth into the raft-up parties and is looking to crack down on the rental boat business.
The aftermath of boating tragedies on Lanier has revved up public support for safety initiatives here, including potential legislation requiring boater education. However, there have been no obvious threats on public access or boat-tie ups. And, despite the high number of drownings, which are about double the number of boat-related deaths, there have been no demands for lifeguards or closure of public areas. Most public outcry here has centered on boating, not the activity that claims more lives on Lanier.
Joanna Cloud, Executive Director of the Lake Lanier Association, said that the organization’s new Water Safety Alliance has no interest in restricting lake access. “I don’t think the alliance would support restricting access to Lake Lanier. I haven’t seen strong evidence that the boating accidents and/or drowning fatalities on Lanier in the past were due to overcrowding of the lake. I think there are a wide variety of other issues at play that we would be more effective at addressing rather than simply cutting off access,” she said.
Comparing lakes Lanier and Norman
Lake Norman Quick Facts
- Year built:1959-1964
- Area: 32,510 acres at full pool
- Shore line length: 520 miles
- Elevation at full pool: 760 feet
- Named for: Norman Atwater Cocke (former president of Duke Power)
- Source of the Catawba River
- 20 marinas with total 5,813 boat slips
- 10 public boat ramps
- 40,000 registered boats and/or watercraft in four bordering counties
- Population of surrounding counties: 1,338,688
- One public swimming area (at Lake Norman State Park)
- 15 minute drive from Charlotte, N.C.
- Mecklenburg population (county seat is Charlotte): 944,373
- Operated by Duke Energy with state and local law enforcement agencies
- The Lake Norman Marine Commission is empowered to enact local ordinances, pending state approval
Sources: Duke Energy, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department Lake Enforcement Unit, Pilot Magazine (North Carolina boating industry publication), U.S. Census Bureau.
Lake Lanier Quick Facts
- Year built: 1950-1958
- Area: 39,039 acres at full pool
- Shoreline length: 692 miles
- Elevation at full pool: 1071 feet
- Named for poet Georgia-born poet Sidney Lanier
- Built along Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers
- 10 marinas with more than 10,000 boats
- More than 40 public boat ramps
- 41,488 registered boats and/or watercraft in four bordering counties*
- Population of surrounding counties: 1,212,292*
- More than 20 public swimming areas
- 20-30 minute drive from Atlanta
- Fulton County population (county seat is Atlanta): 949,500
- Operated by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with state, local and federal enforcement agencies
- Bordering counties and municipalities cannot enact local ordinances on the federally operated lake
*Not including Lumpkin County, which has a small cove on the lake.
Sources: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Census Bureau.
A comparison of boating laws: Georgia and North Carolina
Members of the newly formed Lake Lanier Association Water Safety Alliance and the Lanier Legislative Caucus have suggested studying boating laws in other states to guide potential safety initiatives at home.
North Carolina, home of numerous small lakes and sprawling Lake Norman, nearly the size of Lake Lanier, posts state laws and local ordinances that impose greater restrictions than Georgia has on the books. North Carolina has stricter regulations on boater education, personal flotation devices, and operation of personal watercraft.
For instance, in Georgia a 12-year-old can legally operate a PWC as long as they are within a quarter mile in sight of an 18-year-old charged with supervising him. It is against the law for anyone younger than 14 to operate a PWC in North Carolina.
In Georgia, any individual at least 16 years old with proper identification can operate a boat. North Carolina requires boaters younger than age 26 to take a boater education course and carry proof of course passage on board. Some loopholes exist in the North Carolina statute and are being questioned by officials who look to tighten down on rental boat leases and lower the age requirement for boater education.
Both states have similar statutes for boating under the influence, rules of the road, and navigation lights.
Following are some differences in North Carolina and Georgia boating laws. Georgia’s boating regulations appear in the Handbook Of Georgia Boating Laws and Responsibilities, published by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The North Carolina Vessel Operator’s Guide is produced by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
: Georgia has no requirements for boater education except for laws requiring boating safety courses for boaters and personal watercraft operators age 12-15 who are not accompanied by or under direct supervision of a competent adult. A competent adult is defined as a person of age 18 or older who is not under the influence of alcohol or drugs and is carrying proper identification. Direct supervision means within sight of and within 400 yards of a person who is aware of his or her supervisory responsibility.
On May 1, 2010 the state began requiring that any person under the age of 26 successfully complete a boating education course before operating any vessel propelled by a motor of 10 HP or greater. The course must be approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrations and is available through the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Power Squadron and internet providers. There are exceptions, including provisions for operators of rental boats, out of state boaters, and those under direct onboard supervision of a person at least 18 years old who has a boater education certificate or an adult age 26 or older.
Age Requirements for PFDs
All children under 10 years of age must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD while on board any moving vessel. The law does not apply when the child is in a fully enclosed cabin.
All children under the age of 13 aboard a vessel that is underway must wear an approved PFD unless below deck or in an enclosed cabin. “Underway” means that a vessel is not at anchor, attached to the shore, or aground.
Operation of PWCs
The state does not allow children younger than 12 to operate a PWC. Persons age 12 to 15 may legally operate a PWC only if they have passed a Georgia DNR-approved boating safety course or are accompanied by a competent adult (at least age 18) or are under the direct supervision of a competent adult.
No person under the age of 14 may operate a PWC. A person age 14-16 may operate a PWC if they are accompanied by a person at least 18 years of age who occupies the PWC or if the person possesses ID proof of age and a boating safety certification or card indicating they passed a NASBLA boater safety course. It is unlawful for a person who has responsibility for a person under age 16 to allow that person to operate a PWC unless they meet the other two requirements.
Boat tie-ups restricted on Lake Norman, not on Lanier
Unlike Lake Lanier, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Norman, a Duke Energy impoundment, has a local commission authorized to enact its own ordinances, pending public hearings and state approval. The Lake Norman Marine Commission, composed of five representatives from four counties surrounding the lake, has acted to restrict “rafting” or tying up of boats.
The marine commission has stiffened restrictions on raft-ups on the North Carolina lake that reportedly set a record for the party activity. In raft ups, numerous boats tie up together allowing occupants to wander from boat to boat in what often becomes a floating cocktail party. As many as 500 boats have tied together in raft-ups on a Lake Norman cove in Mooresville.
Cocktail Cove and Sunset Cove, both on Lake Lanier, have experienced similar tie-ups, though not nearly as large as Norman’s record. There are no restrictions on Lake Lanier tie-ups, according to Captain Mark Padgett, whose Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division Region 2 enforces law on Lanier.
“Problems that come with this activity are that people switch from boat to boat,” Padgett said. “They may have had enough safety equipment for the boat they arrived in but with everyone going to one or two boats the numbers get out of whack and may not have the proper safety equipment for that boat.”
Citing safety and quality of life concerns, the Lake Norman commission set limits on raft ups that in effect shut down a popular Lake Bash there last July. The local ordinance requires permits for events when 10 or more boats tie up together. It also imposes the following restrictions:
• If two vessels tie up within 100 yards of shore, they must be at least 50 yards from any other vessel or group of vessels tied or anchored together.
• Rafting of three to 10 vessels must be at least 100 yards from shore and 200 yards from any other vessel or group of vessels tied or anchored together.
• Rafting of 11 or more vessels is not allowed within 300 yards from shore.
Lake Norman Marine Commission Chairman Ron Shoultz believes the local ordinance, in combination with the state’s two-year-old boater education law, has made the lake safer. “In discussion with lake patrols, they say they have seen an improvement in general boating safety,” he said. He added that although it’s too early to make a statistic-based assessment of the new regulations, he believes they have cut down on unsafe boating practices, particularly boating under the influence.