Sunset on Lake Tahoe is breathtaking. I slip off my flipflops. My feet sink into the sandy beach in Kings Beach and I walk down to the edge of the water. Against the shifting orange sky, puffy clouds and lapping waters, I am awed by the beauty of the lake and mountains in the distance shrouded by a purple hue. My eyes look west and the beauty is tainted by a partially submerged, ramshackle sailboat. The water is low and I walk out to inspect it. Shattered windows, rusted metal and broken glass are only a few dangers I can spot.
Kite surfer and Tahoe Vista resident Ryan Kelly has tried to figure out what do to after the sailboat was abandoned in Kings Beach off North Tahoe Beach more than 2 years ago. Kelly called the U.S. Coast Guard, Placer County Sheriff’s Office, Placer County Marine Patrol, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) and the California Division of Boating and Waterways. Each agency told him to contact another agency. Without resolution, after numerous calls, Kelly is frustrated.
“I called the Coast Guard and they said they’re aware of it, but they can’t do anything because the owner refuses to pay. I called nine different companies, people and agencies and each directed me back to the Coast Guard or another agency. They all refused to do anything,” says Kelly, who emailed his concerns to Tahoe Weekly in May. Publisher Katherine E. Hill also called numerous agencies reporting the same abandoned boat marring the otherwise pristine North Shore beach but received no response.
“Our immediate concern is always about fuel and oil spills. We want to be sure that if a boat goes down or there’s anything that might be causing issues in the water that could harm the water quality, we take action right away.”
–Jeff Cowen, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency
Kelly is concerned about the danger of the listing sailboat that he says has been there for close to three years.
“Kids play on the sailboat. It shifts and moves. It’s dangerous” he says.
He has also seen paint chipping off and falling into the lake. Kelly offered to move the boat himself.
“I was told by the Coast Guard I could be fined or sued by the owner for stealing or damaging the boat,” Kelly says. “Aren’t we all supposed to protect Lake Tahoe?”
Seth Jones, co-founder of the nonprofit Below the Blue, which removes debris from Lake Tahoe, is also aware of the abandoned sailboat in Kings Beach.
“We went up there a year ago. It was billowing fuel. There were chemicals and oil still stored on it and it was full of garbage and rotting sewage. We stripped the boat completely of all the materials inside and removed anything we could unbolt and pull off. It was making a mess,” says Jones
Whether it’s due to storm or operator error, there are several reasons a boat might sink, wash up on shore or be abandoned. Colin West, founder of the nonprofit Clean up the Lake, says that some boaters simply may not be aware of Lake Tahoe’s various conditions.
“People may not be knowledgeable when it comes to what the weather on the lake is capable of. They may not be knowledgeable about their boats or set up their buoy line correctly,” says West.
Each year, boats sink, wash ashore or are abandoned. The main concern when a boat capsizes is toxic fluids such as gas, oil or sewage leaking into the water. When it comes to how to deal with boats that aren’t claimed, there are many questions, concerns and issues: Who’s in charge? Are abandoned boats considered trash? Why aren’t the owners responsible? Whom do you call?
Who is in charge?
Two states, five counties and countless local, state and federal agencies play a hand in overseeing and protecting Lake Tahoe, however, none of the agencies Tahoe Weekly contacted could say which one is ultimately in charge of dealing with abandoned boats, including TRPA.
“Our immediate concern is always about fuel and oil spills. We want to be sure that if a boat goes down or there’s anything that might be causing issues in the water that could harm the water quality, we take action right away,” says Jeff Cowen, TRPA public information officer.
TRPA’s first step is to see if there is a spillage. TRPA then reports it to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which responds to spills. But then what happens to the boat? After that, it gets a murky.
“It’s complicated. It’s technically out of TRPA’s purview,” says Cowen.
There’s no one agency in charge of dealing with a capsized, sunken or abandoned boat. When TRPA is contacted about a boat, they assess if the boat is leaking oil or gas and is an environmental issue. Technically, it’s the boat owner’s responsibility to deal with the boat.
TRPA will reach out to the registered owner but some owners aren’t willing to do anything. Legal action can be taken against the owner, but if he or she doesn’t have the money necessary, generally nothing happens. And it costs money to take legal action. According to Cowen, removing a vessel can cost $10,000 or more. Cowen points out that once the boat is deemed abandoned, the person or agency would then be responsible to get rid of it and bear the cost.
Whom do you call?
Cowen said to call TRPA and they’ll turn the matter over to their code compliance manager, Steve Sweet, who is also TRPA’s watercraft team manager.
Earlier this summer, a boat washed ashore in Incline Village, Nev. Cowen said concerned residents posted it on Facebook, tagging West of Clean up the Lake before TRPA was alerted. West called Cowen, who contacted Sweet, who called the EPA. The 37-foot boat was eventually removed by High Sierra Marine after locating the owner of the vessel.
“In rare cases when a vessel appears to be abandoned, things can get drawn out. Because the land underwater is owned by the states, it largely becomes a state issue,” says Cowen.
Jones added that Below the Blue has removed boats and boat parts from several local lakes including hauling an engine out of Cascade Lake and says that removing a boat can be problematic.
“Everyone’s risk averse; the liability of dealing with these wrecks if an agency goes out and touches something can be a problem. If a boat is moved, additional damage or oil could leak out. The owner could sue. Most people prefer not to be involved or point their finger at somebody else’s jurisdiction,” says Jones.
Tahoe Weekly called B.J.’s Barge Service and High Sierra Marine, two local businesses that deal with removing wrecked boats from Lake Tahoe. Alyce Johnson, co-owner of BJ’s Barge Service, explained that to remove a boat from inland water you need to have the owner’s permission. Both companies acknowledged concerns about pollutants leaking into the lake.
What lies under the water?
Clean Up the Lake’s West has been involved in many conversations with multiple agencies about boats that have washed up on shore, sunk or been abandoned and weighed in on the issue.
“It’s definitely an issue. We found plenty of boats sunk from recent storms, far too many if you ask me. We found rafts, dinghies and large boats in the lake,” he says.
After Clean Up the Lake completed a 72-mile cleanup of Lake Tahoe in May 2022, West said they were still 486 heavy items that need to be removed. West and his crew found several wooden boats and smaller boats by Sunnyside on the West Shore and Zephyr Cove on the East
Shore. They also found several sunken boats north of Glenbrook, Nev. at Dead Man’s Point — most smashed to pieces.
“We found a sizable fiberglass boat. It was maybe 7 feet long and 5 feet wide. We tried to dig it out, but it wasn’t budging. There was another large boat in Glenbrook Cove,” he says.
West and his crew are currently doing another underwater cleanup at Donner Lake and plan to return to Lake Tahoe in 2024 or 2025 to remove larger items.
“It’s an even bigger project and task than the 72-mile clean up,” he said.
League to Save Lake Tahoe also receives calls about abandoned boats. I asked them how many boats are on the bottom of the lake.
“That’s a great question,” says Darcie Collins, CEO of League to Save Lake Tahoe. “I don’t know if there’s any inventory. I do know that at some point in time, there were boats that were purposely sunk for one reason or another. In more recent years, I wouldn’t say that the issue is pervasive. On the solution side, we advocate for the quick removal of any of these types of vessels, especially if it’s leaking.
“It gets complicated, first finding the owner, what agency is responsible and once you find the owner, the time that it takes to remove the boat and whether the owner is cooperative or not,” she says, noting that pollution from sunken boats isn’t as significant as other threats. “When it comes to pollution, the most significant impact to Lake Tahoe is runoff from our roads and urban landscape.”
Cowen of TRPA echoed that noting the greatest impacts to water quality and pollutants are fine sediments; nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and stormwater runoff. There are also threats to Lake Tahoe from numerous aquatic invasive species. Pollution from damaged boats is considered a minor concern, particularly if they are not leaking toxic chemicals into the lake.
Jones of Below the Blue is also interested to know how many boats are at the bottom of Tahoe. Unfortunately, he says there is no public funding for that project.
When Jones dives to a wreck in Lake Tahoe, he says he can see countless pieces of fiberglass that have broken down into microplastics littering the bottom of the lake.
“It gets ground up and on a calm day if you look on the rocks underwater, the substrate is just a solid layer of little fine bits of fiberglass around these wreck sites. They get dispersed in the water and the fish and crayfish eat it,” he says.
Jones contends that if a boat is dealt with immediately, it’s one piece of trash, but if it’s allowed to break up, it could become millions of pieces of microplastic.
Microplastics are the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic into tiny and often microscopic pieces that pollute waterways. Microplastics have been found in the oceans, lakes and water bodies around the globe, even in drinking water and are present in Lake Tahoe Read more in our 2020 story “Microplastics: Tahoe’s tiniest trash” at TheTahoeWeekly.com.
Solving the problem
Jones has several solutions at the top of his list to address the issue: designate or create an agency to be in charge and have jurisdiction; get each boat owner to sign a release of liability; set up a fund for contractors to remove boats in a timely manner; conduct annual inspections of moorings and chains; and hold boat owners accountable.
West also suggests that nonprofit groups and government agencies create a boat impound lot.
Cowen said that TRPA is working with other agencies and organizations to create a clear channel of communication to deal with these type of boat issues.
Writing this story was a bit of an unsettling journey. I spoke to numerous people. Many like myself were frustrated, others didn’t want to be quoted and some were a bit cavalier about the issue. For the public, I recognize how confusing it is to figure out whom to call to report a boat issue.
I made six calls to the EPA before finally connecting with Joshua Alexander, a public information office, who has only been on the job for a month. He said if a boat is leaking toxic fluids or a sheen of oil is visible, the public should call the main number of the EPA. They in turn will take the information, fill out a form and send it to someone to follow up on the incident. Alexander could not confirm by press time whether the EPA inspected the boat in Kings Beach but said that he would try and find a way to get the boat removed.
Cowen did email me before press time to notify me that a state agency is working to remove the abandoned boat at Kings Beach but could not provide a timeline.
Unfortunately, abandoned boats and sunken boats are not considered a large source of pollution by any of the public agencies contacted by Tahoe Weekly.
It seems to me that boats like the one on the shore of Kings Beach or sunken boats left to decay at the bottom of any lake are trash and need to be removed. The question remains: Who and what agency is responsible to remove boats that are not claimed?
- Report leaking oil, gas or sewage | EPA | (800) 424-8802
- Report abandoned boats or boats washed ashore | TRPA | (775) 588-4547
- Report any pollutants in Lake Tahoe | Citizen Science Tahoe app | citizensciencetahoe.org
- Below the Blue | belowtheblue.org
- Clean Up the Lake | cleanupthelake.org
- League to Save Lake Tahoe | keeptahoeblue.org