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Modesto Bee - Boating

Residents fear Tulloch Lake is at critical mass


September 5, 2005

TULLOCH LAKE — Like most Labor Day weekends, law enforcement, lakeside residents and those responsible for marine recreation here have their safety fingers crossed.

"(Tulloch Lake) is the smallest lake in Calaveras County and also the most congested," Calaveras County sheriff's Capt. Clay Hawkins said. "That means the potential for accidents is just that much greater."

On summer weekends, as many as 200 boats and rooster-tailing jet skis roar past one another in a blizzard of white wakes, shiny fiberglass and wave-skipping water skiers on this two-square-mile gem on the Stanislaus River between Highway 108 and Copperopolis.

X-shaped because of topography, Tulloch Lake has 1,260 surface acres, some of it in shallow arms that constrict recreational use.

By contrast, New Melones Reservoir, just upstream, provides 12,500 surface acres for boating and other water-based activities.

150 boats per square mile

Hawkins said midsummer survey flights have counted, for example, 34 boats per square mile on Camanche Reservoir, 39 per square mile on New Hogan Reservoir and 36 per square mile on New Melones Reservoir. At Tulloch Lake, they've counted as many as 150 boats per square mile.

"The more boats you got crammed together, the more potential there is for an accident," Hawkins said. "Last year we had no accidents, this year we have had three."

Some congestion is historical, as Tulloch Lake quickly became a water-ski mecca after the dam was built in 1958. Its popularity was enhanced by a building boom that began with the development of Copper Cove in 1969.

The construction of more than a half-dozen housing developments, as well as commercial projects, continues today, with more in the planning stages.

Boating activity upsets anglers

Critics say development will reduce the usable surface of the lake because its design includes building over the water and adding dock space.

"With all of this new development, it only means more boats on the water," said Connie Williams, president of the Conner Estates Master Association and co-chair of the Lake Tulloch Alliance.

The alliance, made up of homeowners and others, would like to see more control over development and protection of the lake's 55-mile shoreline, particularly on the Calaveras side where building restrictions are less stringent than neighboring Tuolumne County, Williams said.

"The concern," she said, "is the effect of more boats on the water. We have a beautiful lake with lots of recreation and we want to make sure it's safe. A lot of people moved here because of its beauty, and we want to keep it that way."

The heavy boat use, generally on weekends, limits fishing because the noise drives fish into deep water, making them reluctant to bite.

Effect on water is unclear

Ski boats also interfere with fishermen who are anchored, drifting or slow trolling.

Although it is unclear what environmental effect this has on the lake's water quality, the Tulloch Lake Association has called for preserving its natural shoreline, including a development buffer and the cessation of permits for seawalls or erosion protection devices that do not protect that shoreline.

Jim Hackbarth, president of the Black Jack Bluffs homeowners association on the Tuolumne County side of the lake, said new projects should have larger lots to reduce the number of homes.

"Say, if we have 2,000 homes and we see 200 boats on a busy day, then if you put in 4,000 homes, how much more pressure is that? When does it stop?" he asked.

Hackbarth, who said he has two sailboats and a pontoon boat, added, "It gets so I don't go out on the lake on holidays anymore."

The Tri-Dam Project, which regulates dock space on the lake, says there are 329 docks in front of single-family homes, often with two boats attached, and 316 slips, which are common with planned housing developments.

Steve Felte, general manager of the Tri-Dam Project, said a recent relicensing study found the lake's boating capacity to be about 125 vessels.

Little authority over public

He said part of the problem is that Tulloch Lake, unlike New Melones, Camanche or Don Pedro reservoir, has intensive private development on its shores.

Felte, a member of a Tulloch Lake task force studying planning and congestion, said part of the licensing obligation is to provide safe activities for private and public users.

"We want to encourage public access of the lake," he said, "but where is the happy medium between private use, safety and public access? We can regulate docks, but we have no real authority to regulate the public."

The lake has two public boat-launching facilities, one at Tulloch Lake Resort on the north end, the other at South Lake Tulloch R.V. Campground and Marina on the south shore.

Are more rules inevitable?

Launching fees at Tulloch Lake Resort are $10 to $25 depending on the day, and $6 at the South Lake Tulloch facility.

The south lake campground and marina are on California Department of Fish and Game land leased to Tuolumne County, which leases it to a concessionaire.

If some way isn't found to moderate the boat traffic, Felte said, more regulations are inevitable.

"We're all talking," he said. "It's been real slow, but we're progressing."

Bee staff writer George Snyder can be reached at 536-9005 or gsnyder@modbee.com.

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