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Tahoe debate on watercraft makes waves

Patrick McCartney

When it comes to personal watercraft and two-stroke marine engines, the nation’s eyes have turned toward Lake Tahoe.

Two months after the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s governing board proposed phasing out old-technology marine engines from Lake Tahoe, the agency continues to field calls from across the country.

“We probably get two or three phone calls a day, a lot from magazines that cover boating, and a few from other jurisdictions,” said Gordon “Gabby” Barrett, a TRPA principal planner.

Citing Lake Tahoe’s status as a federally designated Outstanding National Resource Water, the agency’s governing board agreed to pursue a ban on two-stroke engines that rely on carburetors by 1999. The board is scheduled to consider the ordinance at a meeting on June 25.

The proposed regulation would be the first in the United States to address the issue of water pollution from two-stroke engines, which discharge up to a fourth of their fuel unburned. Federal regulations will require marine manufacturers to reduce the level of emissions from the small, powerful engines by three-fourths over eight years, beginning next year.

As soon as word of the possible ban spread beyond the Tahoe Basin, the TRPA began to receive calls, said Colleen Shade, an associate planner.

“People from the country are asking us what we are basing the proposed ordinance on, and then trying to find similarities in their own area,” Shade said. “Most of the time, they haven’t even looked at the drinking water issue.”

An environmental organization that has closely tracked the issue at Lake Tahoe is the Earth Island Institute of San Francisco, which sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency over its two-stroke engine regulations. The institute contends that the EPA let the marine manufacturing industry off too light.

“If the Lake Tahoe [prohibition] moves forward as recommended, it will be a harbinger of similar legislation across the country in areas with unique resources,” said Russell Long, the institute’s director. “One of the best things about the recommended legislation is that it’s not simply dealing with the Jet Ski issue anymore. In other locations, the pollution issue has been largely overlooked.”

Lake Tahoe’s experience is a concern to Roberta Lyons of Lake County, Calif., a member of the Audubon Society who participates in an interagency committee studying the Clear Lake watersheds.

“I want to know what the details of the problems are,” Lyons said of the reason she called the TRPA.

Lyons said she is concerned about the potential impact of personal watercraft on wildlife, but that most residents of Lake County simply view personal watercraft as a possible aid to the local economy.

“I’m the lone voice in the wilderness here,” Lyons said. “Otherwise, it’s go-go jet skis up here.”


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