Public Waterways

Effectively fund, maintain and manage safe public waterways in 3 simple steps

Managing for cross-purposes and multiple audiences is nothing new to parks and recreation pro’s. After all, most every facility and/or property is geared and programmed for both environmental reasons (parkland preservation) and public recreation.

But, for whatever reason, when it comes to public waterways, managing for both becomes more complex. Who’s more important? Power boaters? Sailors? Canoeists? Kayakers? Fisherman? Lake homeowners? Swimmers? Local boat retailers?

It’s a mish-mosh of competing interests, uses and priorities and it can drive the most patient and discerning parks and recreation manager batty.

An Ohio Case Study

“The number one issue in Ohio is boater access,” says John Wisse, Public Information Officer for the Ohio Division of Natural Resources, Division of Watercraft. “We have a situation where 70 percent of our boats can only use 30 percent of our inland waterways. So, when you go around the state our constituents tell us they want access. This means boat ramps, new ones built and old ones repaired, security (lighted parking lots) and handicap accessibility.”

In other words, all the things any typical municipality responsible for managing public waterways struggles with daily. The question, of course, is how to find that right mix of funding, regulation and common sense that will keep your waterways safe (and clean) and your constituents happy.

Step 1 – Develop Partnerships

The first step is to establish a communication link with your state agency and/or local conservancy district (if one hasn’t already been established), and find out how each can help the other.

Oftentimes, that’s as simple as punching up the agency’s web site (, checking out their program offerings and making a call to discuss how you might work with them. According to Wisse, most states offer a host of programs (and grants) including: boater education, marine patrol training, navigational aids (waterway signage), transient dockage and more.

“In Ohio, we’re here to support our local municipality’s efforts, but the challenge is (and always has been) in letting them know our programs exist,” says Wisse. “If you’re a city manager, mayor of a small town, or parks and recreation director, how would you know we can help you unless somebody told you. You’re too busy running your town or department and are not likely to just

stumble upon us.”

Wisse also suggests you reach out to your local U.S. Power Squadrons chapter (, your local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla ( and the National Safe Boating Council (

The U.S. Power Squadrons and U.S. Coast Guard are geared towards boater education and offer a host of hands-on training opportunities for recreational boaters and marine patrol units as well as an extensive grant program.

The National Safe Boating Council offers a variety of best practices techniques, grants and boating statistics you can use to craft and implement your own strategies. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Step 2 – Review Regulations

While you’re reaching out to local and national partners, take time to ensure your local ordinances are in compliance with state and federal rules and regulations. Not only does this ensure you are running a safe operation, but it opens you up to a lot of help from state and federal authorities – organizations who may have trouble supporting you if your rules run afoul of theirs.

Wisse offers this example, “we had an issue in Ohio several years ago where the City of Columbus had several ordinances that were not in compliance with federal and state regulations. One of them was they banned the use of hand powered vessels on their lakes after dark. We don’t prohibit that in state law and we didn’t want to prohibit it in city code either. So, we went to them and said you face a reduction in your grant money unless you make these changes. The city didn’t want to make the changes and decided to forgo the grant money and we said o.k. Basically, we did what good couples do -- we agreed to disagree. And it just kind of laid there for a year and then we revisited the issue and said, ‘let’s not let this thing hang here.’ In the end, they chose to modify a couple of rules and we agreed to bend on a couple of others and we’re back to working together.”

Step 3 -- Apply for Grants

Which brings us to step three – apply for grants.

“In Ohio, we get surprised when we hear from people down state complaining about falling down boat ramps,” says Wisse. “We tell them, well have you gone to your local city and asked them to file for a grant application? Come to find out, a lot of people don’t even know about them.”

The city of Port Clinton, Ohio (located on the shore of Lake Erie) is a good example. When the city mangers recognized they had a problem with transient moorage, they decided to build a 160-slip marina to service folks who wanted to dock for a day or a week.

Because of the relationship they had already developed with the ODNR Division of Watercraft, they knew grant money was available. They sent in an application and eventually were awarded a $1.3 million grant which covered 14-15 percent of the total cost of the project.

Sound like a big amount? This money was only a fraction of the dollars given out by the state of Ohio last year. Most states are the same.

And, don’t forget the U.S. Power Squadrons, U.S. Coast Guard and National Safe Boating Council – all three also offer access to grant money. The funding is ready and available for those who ask.

Which speaks to the power and logic in working to develop a relationship with your state agency and other boating organizations. It’s the old power of networking. And, it’s not as hard as you might think.

As Wisse says, “it’s only periodic communication, phone calls a couple times a year to let us know how you’re doing and what you need. We’re more than happy to help.”