Two-stroke ban has a long history
The prohibition of certain types of motorized watercraft from Lake Tahoe has a several-year history complete with scientific research, supportive environmentalists, unhappy boat owners, the filing and settling of a lawsuit, many disagreements and discussions, and many, many long meetings.
The issue created waves across the West. Previously, many agencies considering watercraft regulations were concerned only – or primarily – with air pollution.
“TRPA’s action started the ball rolling. Subsequently, (two other California agencies) passed bans on certain types of engines – two-strokes,” said Russell Long, executive director of the San Francisco-based environmental group Bluewater Network. “These three agencies, starting with TRPA, led toward more regulations by the California Air Resources Board. Again and again, the board and the Association of California Water Agencies reminded us of the water pollution issue related to two-stroke engines.”
The origin of the watercraft ban can be traced back to 1993. That’s when the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Lake Tahoe Basin’s bistate regulatory board, started looking into amending its shorezone regulations.
Resulting from the shorezone work, the topic of personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis, came up in 1996. Fueled primarily by then TRPA board member Steve Wynn, discussions about the craft’s safety and noise occurred in the fall of that year. Simultaneously, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was establishing emission standards for motorized watercraft.
It then came to TRPA’s attention that two-stroke engines, which power most personal watercraft, caused more pollution than other motors. Discussions at TRPA meetings continued, and the focus changed more to water-quality impacts rather than noise and safety issues.
In February 1997, about 500 people attended TRPA’s monthly meeting. The watercraft discussion stretched from noon to about 11 p.m., and the board directed staff to come up with an ordinance to prohibit two-stroke engines.
In June 1997, the governing board prohibited carbureted two-stroke motors from use on Lake Tahoe and the basin’s other lakes, effective June 1, 1999. The agency, however, left room for changes.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association and several Lake Tahoe watercraft rental firms and residents filed a lawsuit against the agency in October 1997.
In 1998 a Motorized Watercraft Technical Advisory Group started researching the issue of motorized watercraft pollution. The TRPA; California Air Resources Board; University of California, Davis; University of Nevada, Reno; Nevada Division of Environmental Protection; Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and other agencies comprised the group. The research from the agencies started coming together at the end of the year, and, for the most part, TRPA officials felt the information reinforced the decision the board had made.
“We wanted to study more to question or change the policy, and to make sure we were right,” Gabby Barrett, TRPA director of long-range planning, told the Tahoe Daily Tribune in December 1998. “I think (the research) makes us feel more comfortable with the actions we took.”
According to the report compiled by the agencies, the total amount of fuel used on Lake Tahoe during the 1998 boating season was estimated to be 1.5 million gallons. Two-cycle carbureted engines used only about 11 to 12 percent of that total. However, because two-cycle engines have the largest percentage of unburned fuel going into the water, those engines were believed to be responsible for significant loading of gasoline compounds into the lake, including more than 90 percent of the MTBE, 70 percent of the benzene and 80 percent of the toluene in Lake Tahoe.
In contrast, the four-cycle inboard and inboard/outboard engines consumed 87 percent of the fuel used by boating on Tahoe. But that class was estimated to be responsible for only 8 percent of the MTBE, 28 percent of the benzene and 17 percent of the toluene.
MTBE is classified as a possible cancer-causing agent, benzene is known to cause cancer and toluene is known to cause birth defects.
The compounds were found in patches throughout the lake. In the areas of high watercraft use, according to the report, concentrations of MTBE and benzene were found to exceed drinking water standards. The calculated average of the contamination did not exceed standards, and the concentrations did not approach U.S. EPA criteria for protection of aquatic life. Concentrations of the contaminants dropped at the end of the summer boating season.
In December 1998, the California Air Resources Board adopted emissions standards for motorized watercraft that were far more strict than U.S. EPA’s or any other state’s. Over time, watercraft could not be manufactured in the state without meeting increasingly stringent standards. TRPA officials felt that action reinforced its ordinance.
The plaintiffs in the suit urged TRPA to go with CARB’s standards, arguing that it would make the ordinance more understandable to the public. However, TRPA indicated it would stick to its ban. While it would phase out “dirty” craft, CARB’s requirements would not prohibit craft as quickly as TRPA wanted.
In January of this year, both attorneys general from California and Nevada intervened in the watercraft lawsuit on behalf of TRPA, an action the League to Save Lake Tahoe already had taken.
In the earlier part of this year, while settlement negotiations were under way, TRPA amended its ban without changing it significantly.
An agreement was reached in March. The ban was finalized; the suit was settled.
What brought the proposed dismissal about is an agreement by TRPA to allow more exemptions on the ban. In exchange for that, the plaintiffs in the suit agreed to several mitigation measures, which TRPA officials said would make up for the added pollution believed to be caused by the exemptions. The resulting compromise was supposed to give Lake Tahoe residents, business owners and visitors more options of what kind of watercraft engines can be used on Lake Tahoe. The deal also was to give TRPA more help in enforcing the ban and educating people about it.
One aspect of the agreement was an assurance that the National Marine Manufacturers would give TRPA two boat engines, at a cost of up to $40,000. The engines, installed in a boat TRPA is providing, were expected to double TRPA’s ability to enforce the ban on Lake Tahoe.
Additionally, the plaintiffs are assisting TRPA in providing signs and brochures for distribution in and around the basin. The final mitigation measure agreed upon required the plaintiffs to provide 1,000 bilge sponges and $5,000 worth of material to El Dorado County for its existing lake-wide marina oil program, a three-year $460,000 program to mitigate oil discharges into Lake Tahoe.
While the board agreed upon the settlement, not everyone was happy with the negotiations.
“I don’t think the mitigation is adequate,” Drake DeLanoy, the Nevada governor’s appointee to TRPA’s board, said at the March meeting. “I think it’s embarrassing. Forty thousand dollars (for the two engines) compared to the number of engines they’ll be able to produce in the two years we give them.”
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