The number of boats inspected at the lake fell by more than 1,200 to 14,651 boats between 2009 and 2010. The numbers for this year have not been recorded, but officials are hedging that the trend will continue.
"Inspectors are saying it feels like things are flat or down from last year," said Tahoe Regional Planning Agency spokesman Jeff Cowen.
Inspectors have disinfected more boats this year, not because more boats are coming through inspections, but because tighter restrictions require more boats to be cleaned, Cowen added.
Across California, the number of vessels registered has also dropped. In 2010, just more than 810,000 boats, both commercial and non-commercial, were registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the lowest number since 1990. In El Dorado County, 13,974 vessels were tagged last year, the lowest number since 2002.
"Every indication that the department has received shows there are fewer people out on motorized boats," said Gloria Sandoval, a spokeswoman for the Department of Boating and Waterways. "Even though there are less motorized boats, use of non-motorized boats, such as kayaks and canoes, is actually up."
Sports retailers and officials have noted that the numbers of kayakers, canoers, stand-up paddlers and other non-motorized craft have increased on Lake Tahoe.
"It's really taking off right now," said Tara O'Hara, a longtime South Shore resident and employee at Sport Ltd. "I've been around town for almost 50 years and I've never seen anything blow up like this. There is no part of the shoreline where I haven't seen them."
O'Hara, who now owns a "fleet" of kayaks, switched from power boating to kayaking when her children were born about 20 years ago because she wanted them to be great swimmers and because it was more affordable, she said.
"We could still swim and fish from the kayaks. We could be more flexible," she said. "And the cost was right on."
The reasons for the increase in paddling popularity vary, said Sue Rae Irelan, who studies non-motorized watercraft use for the Tahoe Resource Conservation District. Possible reasons range from the economy, the ease of use, the improving technology, the lowering price of paddle sports as well as an increased interest nationally in the outdoors and health, she said. And for Tahoe, the sport just fits in well up here, she added.
"The experience of kayaking is a good match for the kind of recreational tourist we're seeing more and more of up here," Irelan said.
"I think the total number of people paddling on the lake has definitely increased," said Andrew Laughlin, owner of Tahoe City Kayak and Sand Harbor Rentals. "With the economic crisis, people are selling off high-priced toys like jet skis."
Laughlin has seen an increase in sales, much of it attributed to the rise of stand-up paddling. Changes in the price of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards have made them more accessible to more people, he said.
"In response to the bad economy, the major manufacturers have come up with a few more options in the entry level category," he said.
Laughlin's cheapest kayak, a Wilderness Systems Pungo 100, retails for around $400, which is about $100 less than you could buy the same boat for a few years ago, he added.
For Maureen Whittaker, a visitor to Lake Tahoe from California's Central Valley, renting a kayak at Timber Cove was a serene way to get out on the lake.
"We rented kayaks, rather than a motor boat, because it offers a more peaceful experience," she said.
Inspecting non-motorized watercraft
This year the Tahoe Resource Conservation District announced plans to beef up inspections of non-motorized watercraft, which can transport invasive species from one body of water to the next.
"From an invasive species perspective, we're trying to make sure that paddlers are aware that their boats, paddle boards and gear can easily transport invasive plants and critters from one lake to another," said Pete Brumis, a spokesman for the district, which manages watercraft inspections. "Paddlers should make sure their gear is clean, drained and dry, and any debris should be disposed of on dry ground away from lakes and streams."
The voluntary inspections are not necessarily a response to the increasing popularity of paddle sports, but just another step in the constant effort to decrease the threat of invasive species entering Tahoe, Cowen said.
Roving paddle inspectors will be on Lake Tahoe to help educate and instruct non-motorized recreationists about aquatic invasive species, according to a statement released by the TRPA earlier this year.
Inspections of non-motorized craft will likely never become mandatory, but TRCD hopes to increase awareness about the potential for kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and other equipment to carry invasive species, Brumis said.
"Paddlers should make sure they're gear is clean, drained and dry, and any debris should be disposed of on dry ground away from lakes and streams," he said.