Keeping the waters safe
WORTHINGTON -- Rain showers and windy conditions may have kept people from enjoying Lake Okabena early Saturday, but by late afternoon the beach was booming, the speed boats were moving and people were finding ways to ride the waves.
It's a typical sight for local Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Gary Nordseth, who works most weekends during the summer, weather permitting, to ensure boaters and anglers play it safe on area lakes.
Since taking on the role five years ago after a 20-year stint with the Minnesota State Patrol, Nordseth has witnessed a lot -- from careless operation on the water to exceeding the legal limit of fish in possession. He has warned jet-ski operators for being too close to shore, and boaters who failed to open their boat's drain plug before leaving the lake. Perhaps his worst offense ever seen, he said, was seeing an infant without a life preserver being passed between boats in the middle of a lake.
On Saturday, with his binoculars in reach and his boat slowly rocking the waves, Nordseth was on the lookout for any potential safety violators.
Lake Okabena, he said, brings out the recreators -- boaters pulling water-skiers and jet-skis pulling towable floats.
"Most folks are happy to see you and appreciate the efforts of trying to keep everyone safe," Nordseth said from behind the wheel of his enforcement boat.
As he pulled up alongside boats and other watercraft, he made sure there were enough life jackets on board, a floatation device within reach and a fire extinguisher with the pin still in it.
In one boat, four young girls -- each wearing a life vest -- were rewarded with coupons for a free ice cream treat at the local Dairy Queen. Nordseth keeps the coupons handy just for the kids.
The second highest number of offenses on local lakes are boaters' failure to have enough life jackets on board. The top offense? Jet-skis operating less than 150 feet from the shoreline at a high rate of speed. In that 150-foot zone, Nordseth said jet-ski operators are required to keep a no-wake speed.
"The majority of my time is spent at low speed, just watching people," he said. "Most of the offenses, far and away, are recreational-related."
In advance of the Fourth of July holiday, when area lakes are expected to be busy if the weather cooperates, Nordseth and his fellow Department of Natural Resources conservation officers, as well as sheriff's departments statewide, took part in Operation Dry Water over the weekend. It's an annual concentrated effort to find impaired boaters.
Nordseth said alcohol was a contributing factor in 33 percent of crashes on Minnesota lakes last year. Of the 12 fatal crashes on lakes in 2012, four involved impaired operators. In all, 158 boaters were arrested for Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) last year, meaning they exceeded the legal blood alcohol limit of .08.
While he doesn't see a lot of BWI offenses in Nobles County, Nordseth would like it to stay that way. Lakes in the metro have the highest number of offenses, with the majority of offenders being male.
"Anyone found to be operating a boat under the influence of alcohol will be arrested and taken into custody, no differently than if they were driving a car," he said.
With the holiday, and what will be a long weekend for many, Nordseth encourages those who plan to be on the lake to just be safe.
"Be very conscious of alcohol consumption," he said. "Be very observant of other boaters, swimmers and skiers.
"Common sense just goes a long way," he added.
And, with stepped-up enforcement this year due to the threat of invasive species, Nordseth also reminds people to pull the drain plugs and live-well plugs on their boats before leaving a boat landing.
"I don't know if we're going to stop them, but we're certainly going to slow them down as best we can," Nordseth said.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.