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Engine emissions prompt phaseout

Patrick McCartney

Maybe, if personal watercraft weren’t so loud, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency would never have passed a first-ever ban on current models of two-stroke engines.

As it turned out, however, complaints about Kawasaki Jet Skis and other personal watercraft at Lake Tahoe launched a year-long debate about the the impact of the popular watercraft on the lake’s environment and other recreational uses.

Fueling the debate were letter-writing campaigns backed by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, which requested regulation, and manufacturers of personal watercraft, who appealed to purchasers to defend their use at Lake Tahoe.

The stakes were high. Personal watercraft, such as Bombardier’s Sea Doo and Yamaha Waverunner, have become the fastest-selling product of the U.S. boat manufacturing industry.

Yet, as their numbers have increased on American waterways, complaints have mushroomed about the noise from their powerful, two-cycle engines, and from the reckless operation by riders as young as 12. Safety concerns led California lawmakers to approve a bill that raises the minimum operator age from 12 to 16, a rule that went into place Jan. 1.

At Lake Tahoe, critics and defenders of personal watercraft conducted a running debate over a six-month period, as the role of personal watercraft at the lake was reviewed by a diverse committee seeking consensus on recreational uses at the lake, and by a board committee with the same responsibility.

By February, TRPA board member Steve Wynn had marshaled evidence from Europe and the United States on the harmful emissions of unburned fuel from two-stroke engines. The government of Switzerland had banned such engines from Lake Constance, after concluding that the emissions were fouling the lake’s water quality.

“We had a mountain of confirming evidence that the trapping efficiency is such that (two-stroke engines) are unique in the amount of fuel and oil they discharge,” Wynn said.

American engine manufacturers cried foul, contending that only a minuscule amount of fuel remained in the water. They further questioned whether the emission of unburned fuels had any harmful impact on Lake Tahoe.

In the end, though, the TRPA’s governing board agreed it had the legal authority and responsibility to send a message to engine manufacturers that two-cycle engines are unacceptably dirty to be used at Lake Tahoe. An agency report estimated that two-stroke engines used in personal watercraft, outboard motors and sailboat auxiliary motors contributed 775 gallons of fuel to the lake each day of the 1994 boating season. During the same time, the agency estimated, four-cycle engines contributed 154 gallons a day.

The agency referred to Lake Tahoe’s status as an Outstanding National Resource Water, by designation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, giving the board the authority to halt further degradation of its water quality.

To spur manufacturers, the TRPA governing board in June adopted an ordinance that will ban two-stroke engines that depend on carburetors from Lake Tahoe after June, 1999.

The regulation would allow only new engines that rely on fuel injection, or four-cycle engines, which emit significantly less hydrocarbons.

Representatives of the marine engine manufacturers claimed the agency had exceeded its authority, since the federal EPA will require the engine industry to reduce emissions by three-fourths over seven years, beginning in 1999.

“At this stage, there is no evidence to justify a ban,” said John Fagan, a Tahoe City attorney representing the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

But, the TRPA board held fast, saying the restrictions will help add pressure to the marine engine industry to clean up its act.

“As a group, we have to send a message to manufacturers … that you can’t drip toxic waste into Lake Tahoe,” said Drake Delanoy, the board’s chairman.

While the phaseout will not become effective until 1999, the agency’s board also tripled the size of the no-wake zone circling Lake Tahoe. With the new, 600-foot slow zone, the board decided, personal watercraft users are not likely to trigger as many complaints over their noise.

Reaction to the TRPA action has continued.

This fall, the engine industry joined with Tahoe watercraft rental firms and individual boaters, filing a lawsuit to challenge the agency action. Rentals on the lake represent $3 million in annual business, and if engine manufacturers don’t come up with cleaner engines, the rental companies will be forced out of business.

But, while some protest the pending phaseout, jurisdictions and environmentalists from across the country have picked up the same cause, and are lobbying for restrictions elsewhere, including a ban on personal watercraft at some national parks.

As the first public agency in the United States to restrict two-stroke engines, the TRPA made waves that may last for many years.


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