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Agency board seeks answers to watercraft concerns

Patrick McCartney

On the eve of a scientific showdown over the possible impacts of personal watercraft on Lake Tahoe, those who will have to decide whether to restrict the popular craft say they hope the evidence will help them make a fair decision.

After months of debate before several committees, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s governing board will evaluate the competing claims of those who want to prohibit personal watercraft and those who oppose a ban.

Each side of the issue will have 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon to marshal its best evidence of the impacts of personal watercraft on water quality, noise, other recreational activities and public health.

“We’ve set the stage for a worldwide discussion on personal watercraft,” said Don Miner, a Douglas County supervisor who is the county’s representative to the TRPA board. “I’m looking for good science to prevail.”

Each side is expected to employ a lineup of specialists to discuss the effects of personal watercraft – and the two-cycle engines that propel them – on Lake Tahoe’s protected environment. Included will be a satellite link to Europe, where several Swiss officials will discuss their reasons for prohibiting personal watercraft from lakes in that country.

Members of the agency’s board say they have never experienced an issue that has aroused as much passion from the public.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my eight-and-a-half years on the board,” said Drake Delanoy, the board’s chairman. “The public is vitally interested in this issue.”

Delanoy said the board will have to sift through the evidence and decide for itself how much fuel is discharged into the lake and how harmful that might be.

Others on the board cited different concerns that they hope to have resolved before making a decision. Joanne Neft, a California governor’s appointee, said she will look to answers to her concerns over noise and water-related accidents.

“I think the industry has to be concerned about noise,” Neft said. “Even if they meet current noise laws, if they are still annoying, it doesn’t matter. It’s like hearing mosquitoes buzzing around in my inner ear.”

Local government representatives said they will be looking for answers to specific issues. Miner cited his concern with the possible contamination by hydrocarbons of the water supply. Most communities on the Nevada side of the lake draw their drinking water directly from the lake.

“I’m looking for good scientific data that these craft do not foul the water of Lake Tahoe,” Miner said. “If it is determined it does, there’s no question in my mind that we will take action.”

Jim Galloway, a Washoe County supervisor, echoed Miner’s concern over drinking water safety, but added that Incline Village officials informed him that they have yet to detect hydrocarbon contaminants in water drawn from the lake.

Galloway said he will try to weigh the relative impact of the two-cycle engines that power personal watercraft with four-cycle engines, as a possibly cleaner alternative.

Supervisor John Upton, who represents El Dorado County on the board, said he will be looking for evidence that personal watercraft should be regulated differently than other watercraft.

“We need to be fair,” Upton said. “Can anybody demonstrate conclusively that personal watercraft are so extraordinarily polluting to justify that type of extreme action? If they can’t, it would be out-and-out discrimination.”

Another local government representative, Supervisor Kay Bennett of Carson City, said she will be looking to the marine engine industry for a commitment to produce cleaner two-cycle engines sooner than required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“We have to remember that the lake is there for our children and grandchildren as well as ourselves,” Bennett said.

Larry Sevison, who represents Placer County on the board, said he too will be asking the industry how soon it can comply with pending EPA regulations that will require the industry to reduce emissions from personal watercraft by three-fourths over an eight-year period.

“Obviously, the technology is there; it’s the motivation that is at issue,” Sevison said. “Our role should be to set realistic standards we believe are necessary, and leave it to the industry to meet them.”

The board members described the personal watercraft debate as the most heated in their time on the TRPA board. The pressure has been most intense for the local government representatives.

“Those of us who live in the county have friends who run the rental concessions. A lot of them could be badly hurt if we’re not careful,” Sevison said.

Bennett said the board’s decision on personal watercraft will ultimately be a test of conscience.

“We have a divided constituency on both sides of the issue,” Bennett said. “We know we will be creating enemies on one side or the other. The board will have to make a courageous decision.”


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