Keeping the lake clean of car-wash grime
South Shore residents whose vehicles are covered with a late-winter layer of grime generally have two options for a clean car: wash it at home or take it to one of the South Shore’s three commercial car washes.
But something as simple as a car wash has the potential to damage Lake Tahoe.
“Vehicle wash water contains oil, grease, metal (paint chips), phosphates, detergents, soaps, cleaners, road salts and other chemicals that can contaminate source water,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Wash water also can contain the fine sediment identified by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board as a major contributor to Lake Tahoe’s clarity loss.
Commercial car washes have measures to keep used suds from reaching the lake, and do-it-yourselfers can take some simple steps to keep clean cars from creating a dirty Lake Tahoe.
Seventy percent to 75 percent of the wash water used by the drive-though car wash at Fox Gasoline, which opened last September, is treated on-site and reused, according to station owner John Cefalu.
The remainder is sent through the South Tahoe Public Utility District sewer system, where it is treated and exported to Alpine County with the rest of the utility district’s wastewater.
Seven years in the making, a second automated car wash is under construction on the South Shore and will have similar protections.
Jim Getzelman, the owner of the future Sierra Suds Car Truck Bus Wash, estimated a 10-stage treatment system at the car wash will handle 80 percent to 90 percent of the wash water, with the overflow heading to the utility district.
“We’re trying the best to make this a very clean alternative to washing a car at home,” Getzelman said.
The South Shore resident hopes to open the car wash, next to the Taco Bell on Lake Tahoe Boulevard, this fall.
Built without treatment systems, Tahoe’s two self-serve car washes send all their captured wash water to the sewer system.
While South Shore resident Chris Nicola said convenience was the biggest factor in his choice to wash his work truck at the self-serve Edgin Coin-Op Car Wash near Tahoe Keys Boulevard, when he heard commercial car washes could keep pollution from entering Lake Tahoe, he was all for it.
“Anything that benefits the lake is all right with me,” Nicola said.
There are a couple of ways do-it-yourself car washers can keep wash water out of the lake.
“People should just be aware to wash cars where water can be contained on the ground,” said Lauri Kemper, a supervising engineer with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.
To keep pollutant-laden soap from running into the lake, car washers should use grassy areas and limit water usage. A nozzle with an automatic shutoff is a good way to use only the necessary amount of water, Kemper added.
Although it may sound like common sense, wash water from cars cleaned close to the lake also poses a more immediate threat.
Kemper relayed the story of man who was washing his car in the driveway of his Tahoe Keys home, unaware the dirt and soap from his car was getting into the lake only a few feet away.
“He was shocked (when he saw the runoff to the lake),” Kemper said. “He had no idea, and it was happening right behind him.”