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No-wake zone aimed at reducing watercraft complaints

Patrick McCartney

Starting Wednesday, operators of all motorized watercraft on Lake Tahoe will be required to stay at least 600 feet from shore to reduce complaints over noise by beach-goers.

The new rule triples the distance of the existing slow-speed zone.

The new regulations, which also prohibit all motorized craft from entering any of Lake Tahoe’s tributaries, were approved by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s governing board in June.

While aimed at all motorized boats on the lake, the ordinance was prompted by complaints last summer about personal watercraft, said Jerry Wells, the agency’s deputy executive director.

“It started out being a noise issue, but is also about safety and the separation of conflicting uses,” Wells said.

Complaints about the popular water scooters surfaced last year during the public review of TRPA’s land-use and recreational policies for Lake Tahoe. Over the course of the summer, the agency received thousands of comments from people who believed the small, powerful watercraft should be limited or banned at Lake Tahoe, and from defenders of the watercraft.

While the agency’s board eventually focused on the issue of engine emissions, approving a three-year phase-out of the current generation of two-stroke engines, the board also approved the two ordinances that restrict where motorized craft can go on Lake Tahoe.

By expanding the no-wake zone, the TRPA is essentially rewriting its noise ordinance. From evidence presented by marine engine manufacturers and an independent consultant, the agency’s board learned that no personal watercraft, or even larger motorboats, were ever in violation of its decibel-based noise ordinance, despite numerous complaints from the public.

In tests this spring, a sound consulting firm – Brown-Buntin Associates of Fair Oaks, Calif. – determined that a 600-foot buffer zone would minimize complaints about motor boats by people on the beach. The consultants relied on the theory of “personal speech interference levels” to determine how far away motorized watercraft had to be so that conversations on shore were not disrupted.

“Brown-Buntin and Associates measured a variety of watercraft, everything from personal watercraft to fountain boats, including small outboards,” Wells said. “They figured that boats had to be in the 500- to 800-foot range away from shore.

By contrast to the expanded no-wake zone, which was approved to deal with widespread complaints, the ban on motorized vessels using Lake Tahoe’s tributaries addresses a more limited problem, Wells said.

The new ordinance is aimed largely at stopping personal watercraft users from taking the water scooters on the Upper Truckee River, one of the few tributaries to Lake Tahoe that can be navigated by the shallow-draft watercraft.


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