Paddle boat that ran aground is freed in Lake Tahoe

A historic Mississippi paddle boat that ran aground in Lake Tahoe was freed Tuesday, leaving officials with rising concerns about the lake’s dropping water levels.

The lower water level has already forced the closure of several marinas around the lake, extended beaches and extended shallows. Officials at the Tahoe Regional Planning Authority said they’re already seeing new requests for private property owners and government entities alike to extend their piers. The declining water level has an impact on recreation, and threatens wildlife and the Tahoe economy, officials say.

The level of concern will ramp up dramatically if there is another dry winter, said Geoff Schladow, director of the UC Davis Tahoe Research Center. While Lake Tahoe remains above its historic lows, the water level is almost 10 inches above the natural rim of the lake, at which point water flowing into the Truckee River stops.

Vessels ferried 296 passengers from the Tahoe Queen to shore on Monday after the party boat ran aground in the vicinity of Tahoe Keys that afternoon. The paddle-wheel party boat remained marooned until late Tuesday as Coast Guard officials sought to ensure it could be taken safely back to port. The vessel was pulled from the sandbar and returned to port under its own power at around 5:30 p.m., coast guard officials said.

Once in port, officials at Aramark, which operates the vessel out of Zephyr Cove, said they plan to inspect it for damage with an eye toward resuming operations. Dave Freireich, a spokesman for the company, said it was too early to say why the boat ran aground.

Coincidentally, a Tahoe Regional Planning Authority boat attempted on Monday to show some Nevada legislators an unusually thick clump of plant growth in that area but turned back, said Julie Regan, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“Our boat captain said it’s too shallow,” Regan said.

The current lake elevation is 6,223.82 feet. The natural rim of the lake (before the dam) is 6,223 feet. The lake dipped below the historic rim in 2010. The most extended period for which the water was below the historic mark came in the mid-’90s.

This week’s monsoonal moisture and accompanying rainfall have slowed the decline of the water level.

“If this turns out to be a really wet winter, it will be below the rim for a few months. No big deal,” said Schladow. “But if we have another dry winter, that’s when it starts to get really serious. You’ll have a hit to your winter tourism and summer tourism.”

Schladow and Regan said they were surprised that an experienced operator such as the Tahoe Queen would lose track of the lake’s depth. News reports suggest that damage to boats and to propellers, in particular, is becoming a common occurrence.

“It is a symbol that things are changing, the conditions are worsening,” Regan said. “It’s really important to be extra careful.”

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