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Personal watercraft issue debated

JOHN A. BAYLESS, Sierra Sun

Truckee residents on both sides of the personal watercraft issue spoke out at a special town committee meeting Tuesday night, following presentations by a representative of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and U.C. Davis researchers.

“I thought it went well,” Town Manager Steve Wright said. “I haven’t counted, but it appeared that the audience was equally split. They really added some suggestions for the town to consider as far as possible solutions are concerned and we got some good technical information.”

Town council called the meeting in response to concerns that Donner Lake may be teeming with craft banned on Tahoe this year as a result of new TRPA regulations. Some residents said the noise levels at the lake are already too high, and that increased use would lead to more pollution and noise, as well as more accidents.

Councilmembers Bob Drake and Don McCormack volunteered to serve on the personal watercraft council subcommittee, and led the meeting.

Drake, also the Nevada County Sheriff’s boating officer, provided an overview of the rules on the lake and the problems with personal watercraft which he has witnessed.

He said Donner Lake has few accidents, because of the rule of rotation which applies on the lake. All craft must travel in a counter-clockwise direction, once they have achieved plane.

Drake said the primary reason he stops boaters is because of violations of the rotation rule, and that owners of personal watercraft are usually stopped for doing 360-degree turns.

“I won’t allow 360s or doughnuts, because halfway through they are going the wrong way,” Drake said. “They tell me I’m not letting them have any fun, and I tell them to go find another lake with a nicer boating officer.”

He said in 10 years he has only seen one serious injury accident on Donner Lake, and that there is not usually a problem with alcohol at the lake. However, he noted that many people wait for him to go home before heading out onto the water. Residents also keep a close eye out for his boat.

“When I got the Jet Ski, I was told that was stealth and that’s not fair,” Drake said.

Pam Drum, public affairs coordinator for TRPA, provided background for the audience on the facts of the Tahoe ban on two-stroke engines, explaining that the Tahoe regulations will affect an estimated 37 percent of boaters and personal watercraft owners on the lake.

There are temporary exemptions on Tahoe for some types of two-stroke engines, including fuel-injected two-stroke personal watercraft, auxiliary engines for sailboats and two-stroke engines of 10 horsepower or less. Most of the exemptions expire at the end of the 2001 boating season.

The Tahoe ban this year affects all carbureted two-stroke engines greater than 10 horsepower in size, except those used as auxiliary sailboat engines, Drum said.

She said that the TRPA took action against two-stroke engines specifically in response to water quality issues.

“Two-stroke engines consumed 12 percent of the fuel on the lake and were responsible for about 70 percent of the MTBE discharge as well as 70 to 90 percent of the discharge of other chemicals,” Drum said.

MTBE is a chemical used as a gasoline additive to reduce smog-causing emissions. It is a suspected carcinogen and leaks from gasoline station tanks in South Lake Tahoe have polluted deep wells in the area. Its use will be discontinued statewide within three years.

John Reuter, Ph.D., a scientist with U.C. Davis’ Tahoe Research Group, provided statistics from his research into MTBE on Donner Lake, demonstrating the dramatic short-term impact that heavy boat use has on the lake’s MTBE levels.

Donner Lake is the site of the state’s most comprehensive study on MTBE pollution, because of the investigation which Reuter and his associates conducted for California Fish and Game following a 1997 pipeline rupture near the headwaters of the stream that feeds Donner Lake.

“We sampled Donner Lake more than 500 times, and our numbers are pretty good,” Reuter said. He said the Donner Lake study was a key factor in the state’s decision to discontinue the use of the gasoline additive.

The study revealed that MTBE levels in Donner Lake rose as boat traffic in the lake increased, and that about half the time during the 1997 boating season, the level of MTBE exceeded the 5 parts per billion (ppb) level at which the state has determined the chemical to be detectable by taste and smell. The concentrations rose as high as 12 ppb on the Fourth of July weekend, but never reached the 14 ppb level which the state designates a risk to public health.

“Eighty-five percent of the change in MTBE levels was explained by the increase in boat use,” Reuter said.

He said that in the two weeks after Labor Day, following the end of the boating season, MTBE levels in Donner Lake dropped by half and continued to drop dramatically.

Reuter’s study found that MTBE remains mostly in the upper warm layers of Donner Lake, and that levels of the chemical declined quickly with depth. Because of this, he said the depth of water intakes determines whether the chemical is a threat to people who use the lake for drinking water.

Another factor is that the U.C. Davis study was conducted in the center of the lake, and not in the boat ramp area, where Tahoe studies found levels of MTBE to be substantially higher.

Bryant Allen, a fellow researcher who attended the meeting with Reuter, said the Del Oro Water Co.’s intake is located relatively close to the Donner Lake boat ramp, at a depth of about 25 feet.

Reuter said MTBE is removed from the lake when it dissipates into the air, and there is no evidence that it accumulates from year to year.

“It’s not a catastrophic situation,” he said. “But it’s an obvious sign that something we all enjoy doing – getting out on our boats or watercraft, may be having more impact than we like.”

Members of the public offered many suggestions at the workshop, including:

– Restricting personal watercraft use to certain areas of the lake.

– Paying for more hours of enforcement by the boating officer.

– Restricting fueling within 100 feet of the shoreline.

– Restricting motorized craft use every other day.

– Requiring non-spill gas cans.

– Allowing no alcohol.

– Reduction of the noise limit at the lake.

– Organizing a lake-watch residents reporting system.

– Supplying the lake rules to all rental companies and each homeowner.

– Enforcing a rule that no craft make a wake within 200 feet of shore once launched.

– Restricting motorized use within certain hours of each day.

– Providing handouts on the rules at launch ramps.

– Researching the ability to establish more restrictive laws.

– Adopting TRPA rules.

– Requiring boat driver licenses.

– Considering permits for locals only.

– Expanding amenities at Boca Reservoir.

– Limiting number of personal watercraft rented by concessionaires.

“Staff will put together a report from the meeting, include the suggestions that were made and run them all by the town attorney to see which of the changes we have the authority to make,” Wright said. “We will certainly look at all of the suggestions which were made.”


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