There used to be a time when boaters would go out on Lake Tahoe at night to cruise to a lakeside restaurant or watch the stars from the middle of the lake. But for weekday boaters and those without a buoy, this leisurely past-time may be a thing of the past.
That’s because Lake Tahoe now has a curfew.
Since mid-May, all public boat ramps around the entire lake close at 8 p.m. The only exception is one North Shore ramp, which is open until 11 p.m. on weekends. In addition to reduced access to Lake Tahoe, boaters also have to pay new inspection fees that can cost as much as $60 each time they bring their boat to Tahoe from a different lake.
The source of these draconian measures is the quagga mussel, an invasive mollusk no bigger than a human thumbnail. But don’t be fooled by its size. Local officials say that the mussels pose such a serious threat to the wildlife, fisheries and natural beauty of Lake Tahoe, as well as municipal water pipes and boats, that the drastic regulations are necessary to prevent an infestation and protect the lake. But with no regional inspection program yet in place, boaters say they are being unfairly forced to pay hefty fees and choose between Tahoe and neighboring lakes.
Little Mussel, Big Threat
Originally from Eurasia, quagga mussels were not found in North America until the late 1980s, when they were inadvertently introduced to the Great Lakes region after hitching a ride on commercial ships. With no natural predators, they quickly spread through many of the waterways of the eastern U.S. In 2007, quagga mussels were reported for the first time in the Western United States when they were discovered in Nevada’s Lake Mead. This set off alarm bells in Tahoe.
‘We were aware of the threat for a couple of years, but really in 2006 and early 2007 we became more cognizant of the fact that nearby lakes were infested and something would have to be done,’ said Dennis Oliver, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency spokesman.
The cause for concern is three-fold. First, quagga mussels reproduce at an astonishing rate. In a single year, a female can release one million microscopic larvae, which free float in the water. According to Jonelle Bright, Tahoe Resource Conservation District (TRCD) lead watercraft inspector, a cup of water taken from Lake Meade contained 1,000 larvae.
‘It doesn’t take much water to spread these guys,’ Bright said.
Secondly, the mussels are filter feeders, dining on phytoplankton, which is the bottom of the food chain. This cuts off the food supply for the rest of the food web, essentially starving fish like trout and other animals on up the food pyramid.
‘They are such voracious eaters and producers, they throw everything out of whack,’ said Oliver.
Lastly, quagga mussels will adhere to any surface, such as rocks and pylons, resembling an ugly mass of barnacles. This would destroy the aesthetics of the large granite boulders found around the lake, as well as clog intake pipes for drinking water and boats’ cooling systems. Once the quagga have contaminated a lake, there is no known way to exterminate them for good. Every year at Lake Mead, millions of dollars are spent to scrape the mussels from the dam’s cooling system, only to have them return again. The dead mussels also destroy beaches. When the mussels die, they emit a foul-smelling odor and their razor sharp shells wash up on the shore.
‘At stake is our beaches, the wildlife community that relies on the lake, recreation, fisheries…pretty much everything we are about,’ Oliver said.
Lake Access: Denied
In light of the eminent destruction posed by the quagga mussels, last year the TRPA instituted voluntary inspections at all boat ramps. However, when inspectors were not present, boats could still enter the water. At 24-hour launches like Cave Rock, this meant that potentially infected boats were slipping through the cracks.
‘We were not capturing all boats,’ Bright said. ‘This was a big problem.’
To resolve this issue, last November the TRPA passed an ordinance requiring all boat ramps to close when a certified inspector is not present, and gates were installed at four public boat ramps – Lake Forest, Incline Village’s Ski Beach, Cave Rock and Sand Harbor. (Both the Kings Beach and Tahoe Vista Recreation Area boat launches are closed due to low water levels, but will soon have gates as well.) All inspectors, even those at private boat launches like Obexer’s and Meeks Bay, are trained by the TRCD.
This meant that the public agencies that operate the boat ramps could no longer afford to keep the launches open 24 hours, since this would require round-the-clock staff to comply with the mandatory TRPA inspection rule. Thus, the four public launches now have limited hours – the gates are closed by 8 p.m., except for Lake Forest, which stays open until 11 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Some boaters say this is not long enough.
‘It’s not even dark until 9 p.m.,’ said Truckee resident Court Leve, who prefers boating during the week to avoid crowds. ‘Now I just get three hours on the lake – it’s not really enough. Plus you are not supposed to water ski past dusk.’
TRPA’s Oliver says the reduced hours are necessary to protect the lake, and preferable to the alternative – banning boats on Lake Tahoe entirely.
‘It’s a curfew as opposed to closing it down completely,’ he said. ‘But that’s not possible, so we are trying to make it work the best we can.’
To cover the cost of the inspection program, boaters pay an inspection fee based on the size of their boat that ranges from $10 to $60. If the boat stays in Tahoe for the summer, this is a one-time fee. A seal is attached to the boat and trailer, and as long as it’s not broken each time the boat returns, boaters don’t have to go through the inspection process again. If, however, people want to boat at Donner Lake one day and then Tahoe the next, they will have to pay the fee each time they come back to Tahoe.
While Leve said he understands the need to protect Tahoe from the mussels, he believes the fee structure is unfair. As someone who normally boats at both Donner and Tahoe, he will have to pay $30 each time he wants to re-launch his 19-foot Cobalt in Tahoe. By contrast, boats 16-feet and under cost $10. Due to the costs, Leve said he will probably change his boating habits and not come to Tahoe as much.
Leve is also critical of the current inspection program for not including nearby lakes like Donner.
‘That there’s nothing being done at other lakes is crazy,’ he said.
No Regional Plan – Yet
One reason for this is that unlike Tahoe, which has the TRPA and TRCD, other lakes don’t have their own regulatory agencies making the push for inspectors and providing the budget.
‘In the best world, we would want inspectors at all lakes in California,’ said Eric Tillies, a staff environmental scientist with the California State Lands Commission, which provides stewardship of lakes like Donner. ‘Tahoe is a significant water body compared to other lakes – it has the resources and money to do it.’
However, Oliver of the TRPA said a regional inspection program is in the works, and could be in place by next year. In the meantime, neighboring lakes and reservoirs are relying on educational material to get the word out to boaters about the seriousness of the quagga mussel threat. The Truckee Donner Recreation and Park District, which operates the Donner Lake boat ramp, is passing out flyers to boaters, and at Prosser, Stampede and Bocca reservoirs the Bureau of Reclamation has put up posters to help boaters identify the mollusk.
Despite the limited access and higher fees Tahoe boaters now face, the inspection program appears to be working. Over Memorial Day Weekend, inspectors identified six boats with quagga mussels on them, which were then decontaminated. To date, there are no reports of mussels in the lake.
If boaters would like it to stay that way, then they had better get used to the inspections. As Oliver said, ‘Paying $30 to protect the lake and your boat is reasonable. It outweighs the other option: leaving the lake at risk.’