My turn: Jet Ski use is hurting Auke Lake

Motorized watercraft pollute, make too much noise, erode the shoreline

Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2006

The current debate over the fate of Auke Lake isn't new. Ten years ago, residents, recreational users, Juneau Parks and Recreation, among other governmental agencies, addressed these same issues of compatible and appropriate use.

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An informal "compromise" set boundaries giving 65 percent of the lake's surface to personal-watercraft use. Unfortunately, during the past decade this compromise has proven unenforceable, the use of jet skis has dramatically increased, and scientific studies by the National Marine Fisheries Service have documented a growing level of degradation to both wildlife and water quality. The lake has become a single-use theme park for jet skis with the exclusion of nonmotorized recreation. It has become a question of compatibility, of multi-use versus single-use.

Noise - the pulsating, 100 decibel, chain saw-like whine of personal watercraft - travels unabated over 100 percent (not the compromise's 65 percent) of the lake's surface, and well beyond, into forests, classrooms, homes and underwater. This noise affects 100 percent of the lake's occupants, users, and neighbors, both human and wild. Passive, nonmotorized recreation, including canoeing, kayaking, rowing, sailing, hiking, fishing, swimming, bird and wildlife viewing and simply peaceful enjoyment of the lake, although mutually compatible with each other, cannot co-exist with the disruption created by a small handful of personal watercraft. Jet skis have displaced and disenfranchised all other forms of nonmotorized recreation. Displacement and disenfranchisement by this noise pollution is the lot of many of the formerly abundant wildlife residents of the lake as well. Nesting loons, once common, have totally disappeared. In 2005, one loon call was documented. Swans are early spring visitors, but flee as soon as personal-watercraft activity commences (this Easter is one example). Once observed daily in playful groups, single otters are seen only occasionally.

About 100 percent of the shoreline and wetland habitat of this tiny, 168-acre lake is eroded by personal watercraft and skiers who circle at speeds of up to 60 mph to provide waves for thrill-jumping. One resident has taken photographs that document the loss of 6 feet of shoreline marsh habitat in as many years. These shallows are nurseries for Dolly Varden, cutthroat, steelhead and four varieties of salmon, which rear in Auke Lake.

As for pollution, a recent study by National Marine Fisheries Service of Auke Lake water quality (the same water upon which the Auke Bay Lab depends), shows increasing concentrations of hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, oil and other pollutants, concentrations that spike during June, July and August. According to Bluewater Network, two-stroke engines can exhaust up to one-third of each tank of gas, at the rate of about 2 gallons per hour, directly into the lake. Auke Lake sculpin, studied by the marine fisheries service last year, show liver lesions and other signs of toxic poisoning unknown in sculpin tested in personal-watercraft-free Young and Windfall lakes. These disturbing studies, plus others, can be found on the Friends of Auke Lake Web site and should be read by all thoughtful Juneau residents.

Personal watercraft are coming under control on the national level. As of Sept. 15, 2002, personal watercraft were banned from National Parks. States and municipalities (including Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks) are enacting ordinances to protect habitat, sound-scape, and the concept of compatible, multiple-use of our wild-water resources. Juneau personal watercraft are fortunate to have miles of ocean coastline, launch facilities and unlimited open water appropriate to their chosen sport. Open waters, flushed by tides, aren't impacted in such a concentrated, detrimental way, nor are other users intruded upon to the point of being driven off.

I urge the city Assembly to look at all sides of this issue, at all user groups, their needs and mutual compatibility, at the health of the wildlife populations, the water quality issues as revealed by more than 10 years of scientific study, the viability of the salmon stocks, the safety concerns and accident reports, the ramifications of noise pollution, wetlands erosion and the affect of declining water quality upon the Auke Bay Lab and university fisheries program.

Personal watercraft users have excellent alternatives to Auke Lake readily available, alternatives that provide far greater opportunities for adventure and exploration. Simply by their absence, they can contribute to the restoration of Juneau's only accessible fresh water lake.

• Jackie Lorensen is a Juneau resident, retired teacher and school librarian.

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