Jet Ski riders circle the wagons

by Daniel Kraker

Page, Ariz. - Lake Powell, created when Glen Canyon Dam flooded a 180-mile stretch of the Colorado River in the 1960s, has been called many things. Former Bureau of Reclamation chief Floyd Dominy dubbed it a "marvel of mankind." Writer Edward Abbey, one of the most vocal champions of the crusade to drain the reservoir, described it as the "world's biggest sewage lagoon" (HCN, 11/10/97: Reclaiming a lost canyon).

But for serious personal watercraft riders, Lake Powell is a paradise. An estimated 100,000 of the machines - widely known by their trade name "Jet Skis" - cruise the reservoir every year. That's about a quarter of all the boats on the lake.

But the machines' future at Lake Powell is as hazy as the much-maligned exhaust they spew. For the past five years, a small San Francisco-based environmental group called the Bluewater Network - which the Wall Street Journal has described as "the command post for the crusade against Jet Skis, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles" - has won a number of victories in its fight to kick Jet Skis out of the national park system.

Now, it's zero hour at Lake Powell and seven other Western national recreation areas. On Nov. 6, Jet Skis will be banned from the reservoir while the National Park Service completes an environmental review of the machines' impacts. And while the Park Service has vowed to allow personal watercraft use to continue, it's facing a determined opponent that has trod a well-worn path to the courtroom door.

Economic engines

Bill Foust, who owns B & T Marine in Page, doesn't mince words when he describes what a permanent Jet Ski ban would mean: "It would wipe out me, my family, and I've got sixteen employees who would no longer work here."

By some estimates, recreation on the lake brings in $400 million annually to the local economy. A quick glance at Page's yellow pages reveals more than 20 boating businesses, many of which specialize in Jet Ski sales and rentals.

To protest the impending ban, local business owners recently organized a rally. Seventy-five Jet Skiers motored to Glen Canyon Dam, where speakers exhorted the crowd from a houseboat with a huge American flag draped over its side. But even as their words echoed between the tall sandstone cliffs, Jet Ski exhaust hovered over the water.

Gary Symkoviak, who made the six-hour trip from Salt Lake City to the rally, says environmentalists' gripes can be addressed without a ban. "There's technology now that provides as clean-burning an engine as any type of boat," he says, referring to cleaner, quieter four-stroke and fuel-injected engines.

But the vast majority of the 1.1 million personal watercraft on the water today are powered by two-stroke engines, which discharge a quarter of their fuel unburned into the water. According to the National Park Service, this amounts to approximately three to four gallons of fuel during a two-hour ride.

"This has a detrimental impact on not only the water quality but park air quality as well," says the Bluewater Network's Sean Smith. "A significant portion of the unburned fuel will evaporate and go into the surrounding airshed."

To ban or not to ban

In 2000, responding to a Bluewater lawsuit, the Park Service banned Jet Skis in 66 parks. Then, after another suit, the Park Service agreed to require all of the 21 remaining parks (mostly national seashores on the East Coast and national recreation areas in the West) to complete environmental impact statements and make them available for public comment. Of those 21, five have already decided to ban Jet Skis permanently.

But the remaining parks, principally the great recreation areas throughout the West, seem poised to move in the opposite direction. Lake Mead's draft study, issued in August, proposes allowing Jet Skis on 98 percent of the reservoir. Lake Powell's draft only bans them from the rivers that feed into the reservoir. Neither addresses the possibility of using four-stroke engines.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Superintendent Kitty Roberts says personal watercraft do have some adverse environmental impacts, but the damage is diminished by the size of the lake. "Any type of water pollution would be dispersed rather quickly in such a large body of water," she says. As for air pollution, "We're well below the ambient air quality standards."

Regardless of Superintendent Roberts' final recommendation, personal watercraft will be banned from Lake Powell starting Nov. 6. The Park Service will collect public comment on its environmental impact statements until Nov. 27. (A public comment period on Jet Ski use at Lake Mead closes on Nov. 3.) Park Service officials say they hope to complete the process and be open for Jet Skiing next April, but it could easily drag into next summer * or head back to the courtroom.

Boat-shop owner Freddie Hancock suspects the fight against Jet Skis is just the first part of a larger campaign. "If they're successful with (Jet Skis), then they'll go after the boats and then the houseboats," she says. "And then they'll drain the lake."

Daniel Kraker writes from Keams Canyon, Arizona.

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