Donner Lake to lead to many other MTBE studies | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Donner Lake to lead to many other MTBE studies

B.H. Bose

A study on the sources of a gasoline additive that continues to find its way into local waterways has recently concluded at Donner Lake. The results, which prove that recreational boating is the main source of contamination, will be used with data from other research projects to propel the completion of a report on the overall effects caused by this compound.

The additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether, is used in gasoline to reduce the pollutants released from the exhaust of automobiles. While it has greatly helped in improving air quality in California, its presence in water has raised concerns about environmental and human health hazards.

“One important thing about this particular piece of work is it’s one of the first comprehensive studies on the fate and the transport of MTBE in lakes,” said John Reuter, associate director of the Tahoe Research Group at the University of California at Davis. “We have a paper in review and if and when it is published, it will be the first one on this subject.”

Most of the data was collected in 1997, but some of the research spilled over into 1998. Officials with the research group took samples from approximately 10 different levels in Donner Lake, from a multitude of locations. They did this about once a month – sometimes every other week – for more than a year.

“It seems to pretty much implicate two-stroke engines as the cause of MTBE in the lake,” said Bob Richards, field lab manager for the Tahoe Research Group, which is headquartered in Tahoe City. “The background levels (of MTBE) didn’t increase until later on in the study when fishing boats and personal watercraft starting coming onto the lake in spring. And then it jumped over the Fourth of July weekend.”

The reason the study was conducted on Donner Lake, according to Reuter, was because a gasoline pipeline had broken near the lake’s headwaters. Because of the concern that the gasoline would eventually flow into the lake, the research group took action.

What the researchers found was that the pipeline break had little to no impact on the lake, but that MTBE and other gasoline additives were entering the lake from motorized boats and personal watercraft.

“The MTBE levels in the water went up only .1 to .2 parts per billion after the pipeline break,” said Reuter. “From July 1 to July 7, it went up 2 to 12 parts per billion because of motorized vehicles. So, we saw a huge jump in the lake.”

Nearly 86 percent of the “variation in the seasonal trend of total lake MTBE levels” was attributed to gasoline-powered engines, the report stated.

Results will be compiled and compared to data from current studies across the state. The University of California system was recently awarded approximately $500,000 by the California Legislature (SB 521), said Reuter. U.C. Davis researchers will be using the majority of those funds on a variety of projects throughout the state. They will then compare their data with data from other University of California projects and prepare a final report in the fall. Some of those projects will be conducted on Lake Tahoe and will include a boating survey to get an idea of the use, tests on pollution and the type of engine, and monitoring of MTBE and other gasoline-related contaminants at specific locations in the lake.

“There is a lot of stuff being conducted at Lake Tahoe and there is a big push statewide,” said Reuter. “There has not been a lot of advanced warning and there are a lot of people scrambling around to understand this MTBE issue. California is the leader of the wave and we have been recording a lot of phone calls from people in Washington state, Michigan, and even Maine saying they are beginning to look at this also and what have we done about it.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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