Minnesota boaters hampered by low water levels

Boaters are still allowed to operate on lakes, but the DNR is advising people not to power load their boats and to be more cautious in shallow areas of lakes that used to be 5 to 6 feet deep and now may only be 3 to 4 feet deep.

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Boats on Big Detroit Lake on July 3.
Tanner Robinson / WDAY

MANKATO — As water levels continue to drop due to drought conditions, boaters are experiencing significant issues launching and retrieving boats, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

DNR crews are repairing and extending many boat launch ramps to provide boating opportunities in these low-water conditions. However, little can be done to fix boat ramps naturally on shallow lakes in places where power loading has caused holes that are too deep to fix with equipment.

"Boat ramps that were damaged by power loading provide not only a challenge to launching but can also result in damage to boats, motors and trailers," said Nancy Stewart, the DNR's statewide water recreation program lead. "Boaters should always use caution and check the ramp and water levels before launching."

Boaters are still allowed to operate on lakes, but the DNR is advising people not to power load their boats and to be more cautious in shallow areas of lakes that used to be 5 to 6 feet deep and now may only be 3 to 4 feet deep.

Prop-wash holes are caused by power loading, which happens when the boat operators use the motor to load the watercraft onto the trailer instead of cranking the boat onto the trailer with the winch. The motor scours a hole in the sand and gravel at the end of the boat ramp. Subsequently, unsuspecting boaters can back into the prop-wash hole with their trailers.


"It's difficult to get a trailer unstuck from a prop-wash hole," Stewart said. "Also, in the area past the hole, there is often a mound of sand or rock deposited by power loading. Boats can run aground on this material and not be able to get to deep water."

DNR staff have been monitoring water levels frequently and pushing docks farther into the water so they're at an appropriate level for people launching boats or bringing them back in.

As for why water levels are so low, DNR staff blame a significant drought with well below average rainfall, which has contributed to low water levels in lakes, rivers and streams.

Water levels are a bit higher than last year at this time but are well below normal levels, said Ryan Thilges, Blue Earth County engineer and public works director.

The problem is widespread, affecting lakes throughout our entire region.

With water levels low, boaters are also experiencing more problems with obstructions in the water, such as rocks, sandbars and stumps, Thilges said. With lake levels being below average water level, there's a higher chance of hitting obstructions with your boat.

When water levels decline, less of the boat ramp is underwater, which reduces the length of the ramp available for a successful launch, the DNR reports. As a result, there is a greater chance of backing a trailer past the end of the ramp when launching. Ramps can be extended in some places to reduce this risk, but this is not effective where shallow water persists well beyond the boat ramp.

To successfully launch boats in low-water conditions, the DNR advises to:


  • Check the ramp, especially the firmness of the gravel at the end of the concrete ramp and the water depth.
  • Use smaller watercraft or a different waterbody if the ramp you normally use is too shallow.
  • Expect delays at public access sites and be patient with boaters who are having difficulty launching
  • Watch for obstructions in the water near the access, like large boulders or tree stumps.

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