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The “Gem of the Sierra” was in serious trouble even before California’s 5-year drought-see what experts say about the future of the lake.

By Whip Villarreal

Lake Tahoe, one of America’s most cherished treasures—renowned for its clarity, blue waters and year-round recreational activities—is facing a number of environmental issues that threaten not only the ecosystem of the lake, but also a local economy that depends largely on tourism revenue.

According to scientists, three key issues threaten the health of the lake. The first is pollution runoff, where sediments stay suspended in the water, causing it to be cloudy, lose its clarity and become prime territory for algae growth. The second is the introduction of aquatic invasive species, which have made their way into Lake Tahoe, are changing the ecology of the lake and the food web, and have impacted native species. And finally, the third is climate change, which is exacerbating the issues facing the lake.

Geoffrey Schladow, director of the University of California Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center in Incline Village, has been studying the lake for 22 years and compiles data for the annual State of the Lake Report. He is just finishing his 2017 report, but says there is an increasing amount of algae appearing in the nearshore and washing up on beaches around the lake. Fortunately, he says, there is also increased recognition of the problem, with management agencies and researchers launching a number of new studies in the Tahoe Basin with the aim to further understand the cause of this dramatic increase over the past decade.

One of those studies, begun in June 2016, involves monthly helicopter flights around the lake to take aerial images of algae washed up on beaches. The mission is to try to determine which parts of the lake are affected and how dense the algae is.

One working theory is this: According to the 2016 State of the Lake Report, the lake level fell by 9 feet in 2015 and the precipitation from the drought years came in the form of rain, not snow, which led to warmer water entering the lake. The warmer water not only created conditions more hospitable for invasive species, but made it easier for algae to grow for longer periods of time and in greater numbers.

Another issue that concerns researchers is something known as lake mixing or—in the case of Lake Tahoe—the lack thereof. When a lake mixes, oxygen is transported from the surface down to the deepest parts of the lake. If oxygen does not get replenished frequently enough, oxygen may run out at the bottom of the lake and it becomes a dead zone. If that happens, the bottom part of the lake is unusable by oxygen-breathing animals and forces them to move up in the water or die.

Schladow fears that ongoing climate change may produce a condition where there is progressively less mixing of the water in Lake Tahoe. “What we know about climate change is that we are going to have more extreme events according to many of the…models,” Schladow says. “There will be extreme years in the future where we will get mixing and oxygen will be taken down back to the bottom of the lake again. But we will also have longer and longer periods where this mixing doesn’t happen. So the trick is we have to give the lake resilience to last decades, maybe 20 or 30 years, without this mixing.”

Sediment runoff and invasive species, the lack of lake mixing, increased water temperature and the consequences to climate change all have the potential to create a perfect storm of unwanted effects on the lake. “There is a big unknown,” Schladow says. “We are not sure if (these) conditions are creating niches for organisms that we don’t really want there, or if they are going to have negative impacts on recreation or the appearance or the smell of Lake Tahoe. So you have something that doesn’t look as blue or gets odors because of algae blooms in the future, suddenly it becomes a less attractive tourist destination, which starts (affecting) the local economy.”

In fact, according to the most recent data from the Tahoe Prosperity Center, tourism revenue in 2010 accounted for nearly $2 billion of the entire $4.7 billion Tahoe Basin economy. Heidi Hill Drum, the center’s CEO, says a report due out later this year will show tourism dollars now account for an even higher percentage of the Tahoe economy.

Experts maintain, however, that hope is far from lost, in part because of the local and national efforts being applied to the situation. Although there are a plethora of environmental issues facing this body of water, straddling the California-Nevada border, Schladow cites the stabilization of water clarity loss, as well as new understanding and strategies to combat the lake’s problems, as positive signs. He also says Lake Tahoe overall is healthy and he has—since the first Lake Tahoe Summit—been optimistic about its future.

Keeping Lake Tahoe Blue

“People should be debating the best climate mediation actions, not whether climate change is happening. Scientifically, that is settled.” -Geoffrey Schladow, Director of the UCD Tahoe
Environmental Research Center. Photo by Peter Spain.

Annual Lake Tahoe Summit

The annual Lake Tahoe Summit began in the summer of 1997 and was attended by then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. The summit’s purpose was to bring national attention to the environmental problems of Lake Tahoe, which had been experiencing significant clarity loss.

When researchers at UC Davis began recording data in 1968, they reported more than 100 feet of clarity in the waters of Lake Tahoe. However, year after year this figure dropped, and by the time the first Lake Tahoe Summit was held 29 years later, clarity was at an all-time low of 64 feet.

The inaugural summit set the stage for the passage of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California drafted together. The bill authorized the federal government to spend $300 million over a 10-year period to help restoration efforts. It also helped create the Environmental Improvement Program, which raised $2 billion from federal, state and private sectors over the next 20 years.

Ever since, the annual summit has become a yearly gathering of federal, state and local leaders dedicated to the goals of further restoring and sustaining Lake Tahoe. Former President Barack Obama made his first ever visit to the “Gem of the Sierra” to attend last year’s Lake Tahoe Summit, which celebrated its 20th anniversary. He was the first president since Clinton to visit Lake Tahoe while still holding office. In his speech, he raised the issue of combating climate change and he praised efforts since the first summit to restore the health of the lake.

After his keynote address at the summit, in his final months in office, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which authorized up to $415 million in future federal funding appropriations over the next seven years.

This year’s 21st annual Lake Tahoe Summit will be hosted by Sen. Feinstein on August 22 at Valhalla Tahoe in South Lake. The summit will focus on the critical environmental issues facing the lake and the newly authorized Lake Tahoe Restoration Act. Some of the lineup is still being finalized, but summit officials say that federal and state leaders from both Nevada and California are expected to be present and to speak.

Among some Tahoe locals, however, there is suspicion the annual summit has become an event that amounts to mere political grandstanding. Dave Critchfield, 71, of Agate Bay in North Tahoe, has been living in the basin for 32 years and says he’s witnessed the health of the lake decline because of urban development and increased tourism. He views the summit as political theater. “I think it’s a waste of time,” Critchfield says. “All they do is come up with rules to spend tax money and then they leave and nothing gets done. They’re not locals who live here that have seen how unhealthy the lake has become. I think that’s a problem for those who do live here year-round and care about the lake.”

However, proponents argue that through the years, the summit has been crucial to focus national attention on the need to preserve and protect Lake Tahoe, as well as secure federal funds to help restoration and conservation efforts.“It has had varying degrees of success over the years,” says Jesse Patterson, deputy director for the League to Save Lake Tahoe, “(with) last year being a huge success (in) that President Obama came, which showed the national commitment (to Lake Tahoe). I think it helped grease the wheels for the reauthorization of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act to make its way through Congress and actually get authorized. So in that sense I think it does mean something. Year to year, maybe not as much. But in the long term, it has done a great deal for Tahoe.”

Keeping Lake Tahoe Blue

President Obama at the 20th Lake Tahoe Summit in 2016. Photo by Mike Vollmer, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency

Indeed, there are governmental challenges ahead: Even though former President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, the money has not been appropriated through the Republican-controlled Congress. With President Donald Trump’s recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as his proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is uncertainty whether federal money will actually make its way to Tahoe.“The federal government, through multiple agencies and services it provides, does very good work,” Schladow says. “For example, the U.S. Geological Survey collects fundamental data around the country, including Lake Tahoe. And so if there were reductions in what they can do, that would obviously reduce the amount of information available. And this is a shame that things like climate change have become a political issue. People should be debating the best climate mediation actions, not whether climate change is happening. Scientifically, that is settled.”

Keeping Lake Tahoe Blue

Photo by Paul Hamill.

Environmental Organizations

Not only do federal, state and local governments contribute toward sustaining and restoring the lake, local organizations play a part as well.

One of those organizations is the League to Save Lake Tahoe, a private membership organization that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The organization focuses on science to help guide policy and management practices around the lake. It also educates the public about ways to “Keep Tahoe Blue,” the popular slogan the group uses on its merchandise to raise funds for environmental work.

The league trains volunteers to collect data and information in programs such as “Eyes on the Lake,” which is aimed to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive plants in Lake Tahoe and surrounding waters. Volunteers identify and report on aquatic invasive plants they find in and around Tahoe, helping land managers catch them before they can spread to other parts of the lake.

The league also regularly takes part in beach and community cleanups throughout the year with other nonprofits, agencies and corporations. In 2016, volunteers removed more than 3,600 pounds of trash and cleaned 18 miles of Lake Tahoe’s shoreline.

Another organization dedicated to preserving Lake Tahoe is the Tahoe Fund, a nonprofit organization which started in 2010 and focuses on completing environmental improvement projects, beach stewardship and outdoor recreation amenities around Tahoe through a combination of government and private funding.

Since 2010, the Tahoe Fund has helped raise $6 million from private donations and has helped support more than 25 different projects, such as new bike paths and improved trail heads.

Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund, says the group is currently working on a new bike path from the edge of Incline Village to the entrance of Sand Harbor State Park, which is the organization’s biggest project to date. More than $1 million was raised in private donations, helping secure a $12.5 million federal grant for the project.

Berry says that without the help of private donations the project would have never begun.

“I think the Tahoe Fund is a great sign of how much interest there is in getting involved and doing stuff that is going to make Tahoe a better place,” Berry says. “We’ve learned that private and public partnerships are the way of the future. And the relationships we have built as a private organization with all of our public agency partners are really strong and poised to do more.”

For instance, Berry says that the Tahoe Fund is currently working with California state officials to help acquire 200 acres of land in South Lake Tahoe called Johnson Meadows. The deal is said to be in the final stages and may be in public hands by the end of the year.

How You Can Help

Experts say there are a number of ways residents and visitors can help improve the health of the lake—or at least be mindful of treating it well. One of the simplest ways is to be educated on negative environmental impacts—and learn how to avoid them. Practices such as “packing it in and packing it out”—not leaving trash—are a start. So is driving as little as possible while in the region: Exhaust fumes from lakeside traffic jams are known contributors to clarity loss, so fewer vehicles mean the lake is better protected.

It’s also critical to reduce nutrients flowing into the lake to alleviate algae growth. Experts suggest residents and businesses use minimal amounts of fertilizers on lawns and gardens, particularly those close to the lake. Individual property owners can also reduce water runoff, which can carry nutrients and fine particles into streams and eventually into the lake.

Finally, it is impossible to completely eradicate aquatic invasive species, but the best practice is to control them, limiting their numbers to acceptable levels and containing them to areas of minimal impact. This is why it is important to clean, drain and dry all gear and watercraft that enters the lake. In Lake Tahoe, all boats entering the lake are legally required to pass an inspection for aquatic invasive species and have the necessary seals and tags that will allow access to the lakes or surrounding waters. Anyone not following this rule can and should be reported.

Paddle boarding in Tahoe

Photo by Peter Spain.

For those who want to get more involved in helping restoration efforts for Lake Tahoe, there are a number of organizations that welcome volunteers and donations:

California Wilderness Coalition

Mountain Area Preservation

EarthShare of California

Lake Tahoe Bear League

Planning and Conservation League

Sierra Club

Sierra Forest Legacy

Sierra Nevada Alliance

Sierra Watch

Sugar Pine Foundation

Tahoe Baikal Institute

Tahoe Keepers

Tahoe Rim Trail Association

Truckee River Watershed Council

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