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Cars don’t factor into Tahoe environmentalism

Annie Flanzraich
Tribune News Service
File photo
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LAKE TAHOE – Lake Tahoe is the land of the environmental impact study. From expanding a resort to changing a road or proposing a new development, practically every action that could affect the lake’s environment is tested and tried.

But when it comes to vehicle emissions and the tailpipes that spew exhaust into the air, testing and trying is negligible.

Most vehicles registered in the Lake Tahoe Basin are not required to have an emissions test. The exceptions are vehicles brought into the basin from out of state and when a vehicle is about to be sold.



Otherwise, due to low populations around the basin, testing is not required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and in turn not enforced by the two states, five counties or one city surrounding the lake.

“If a county has less than 100,000 people, it’s assumed there isn’t a problem,” said Tom Jacobs, a spokesman with the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.



Vehicles in Crystal Bay and Incline Village are exempt because the area is in attainment when it comes to carbon monoxide levels expected by the EPA, said Daniel Inouye with the Washoe County Air Quality Management District. The more congested areas of Washoe County like Sparks and Reno are not in attainment and vehicles there require emission testing.

The portions of the basin in Douglas or Carson counties are also exempt for an emissions requirement because of smaller populations, said Jill Lufrano, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

On the California side of the lake, most vehicles do not receive a yearly emissions test because the basin is considered in attainment when it comes to ozone levels, said Dimitri Stanich, a spokesman with the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board.

“For smog check requirements to be enforced, a region would have to be in the non-attainment category,” Stanich said. “Tahoe is unclassified, which means that it has not been evaluated on the assumption that there is not enough traffic and industry …”

The exceptions to the rule, like Nevada, are vehicles brought in from out of state and when a vehicle is about to be sold.

Vehicles registered in Truckee are also subject to different rules. Vehicles within specified model years are required to be certified every two years during their registration renewal with DMV. Vehicles registered in Truckee must receive a two speed idle smog check.

For a listing of the specified model years http://www.smogcheck.ca.gov.

While the EPA may be looking for effects of atmospheric pollution on human health and safety, scientists analyze how it may affect Lake Tahoe’s clarity – the informal measuring stick for local environmental protection.

Numerous studies have been completed on what creates air pollution in Lake Tahoe and how much of it ends up in the lake. And many more are being conducted. However, there is not a consensus on how much it may or may not affect clarity decline, said Charles Emmett, Principal Planner for TRPA.

“There are multiple emissions that come out of a tailpipe,” Emmett said. “The jury is still out on how much actually gets into the lake.”

The decline of Lake Tahoe’s clarity by about 30 feet in the past 40 years is generally attributed to three main sources by scientists – small particulate matter, phosphorous and nitrogen.

Moving vehicles contribute about a third of the nitrogen in the atmosphere of the basin on a yearly basis, according to a 2008 by the Desert Research Institute.

“One of the things we have been able to quantify 55 percent of the nitrogen input into the lake comes from atmospheric sources,” said Alan Gertler, a research professor with the Desert Research Institute Division of Atmospheric Sciences and one of the authors of the 2008 study.

The study also quantified the amount that vehicle emissions contributed to the phosphorus levels in atmosphere.

The missing link is how much of that atmospheric pollution filters into Lake Tahoe.

“That is the big scientific debate … that is going on – there are multiple scientists working on it, multiple papers written and depending on the tests it varies,” Emmett said.

Still, Gertler said that it would be useful to require emission tests for vehicles registered in the basin.

“Logically we should do inspection and maintenance and some rigorous test on vehicle carbon monoxide emissions,” Gertler said. “Scientifically we should implement that.”


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