“The health of the land and the health of the people are tied together, and what happens to the land also happens to the people. When the land suffers so too are the people.”
– A. Brian Wallace, Former Chairman of the Washoe Tribe
Lake Tahoe is known as the “Lake of the Sky.” It is famous for its sparkling blue water and clean air. The blue sky and the surrounding landscape reflect in clear water. From far away, The League to Save Lake Tahoe says, “Lake Tahoe is a deep cobalt blue,” and nearby, “the water is crystal clear, reflecting dazzling turquoise, sunset reds, and stormy purples.” Environmental issues of Lake Tahoe remain an important aspect of the area’s relationship with the lake. Students and staff at the Shared History Project conducted oral histories with community members who have experienced and witnessed many of the challenges associated with these environmental changes and issues. David Achey mentions in his interview that “The big issue… is maintaining the clarity of the lake.” The problems surrounding pollution in the lake likely stem from multiple sources, most notably a rise of population in the area. Steve Watson, another of our interviewees, mentions that the water at Lake Tahoe “used to be so clear because the waters would come down out of the mountains and be filtered by all the meadows. The meadows have been replaced with housing and so now you have to have more artificial filter systems to keep the Lake as clean.” According to Douglas Strong’s interview, “the rapid increase in people and buildings in the 1950s overwhelmed local efforts to handle to problem of sewage disposal,” which, compounded with even more population increases and recreation, caused the lake to become more and more polluted.
According to the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the largest sources of pollution and other environmental issues come from urban storm water and invasive species.
Urban storm water is created as rain or melted snow flows through urban areas. The water picks up dirt, road sand, particles, and oil, as it flows down streets and parking lots, then eventually flows through storm drains leading to Lake Tahoe. When this happens, the risk for pollution becomes dangerously high.
Invasive species are another problem at Tahoe. The League to Save Lake Tahoe asserts that “one of the biggest threats to Lake Tahoe is the introduction and spread of invasive species. Weeds and non-native snails are changing the lake’s ecosystem, concentrating nutrients, causing algae blooms, and creating habitats for more invasives like goldfish and bass.” Some of these species already invading Tahoe include Asian clams, Eurasian watermilfoil, and curly leaf pondweed. The League further comments that these species are “responsible for considerable shoreline degradation, impacting how recreationists experience Tahoe.”
So what do we do about it?
There have been several initiatives to raise public awareness surrounding pollution and invasive species. There have also been regulations put in place to limit recreationists’ impact on the Lake. These include boating regulations, which reduce the boat traffic as well as eliminating the inefficient motors that were used in the past. Earlier engine designs often leaked fluids into the lake, and as a result of the pollution they caused, two-stroke motors were banned in favor of more efficient four-stroke motors. There are also regulations for washing any water craft before and after using the lake in order to reduce the chance of invasive species further damaging the ecosystem.
Keep Tahoe Blue (operated by The League to Save Lake Tahoe) is an organization that operates to combat area pollution and preserve the beauty of Lake Tahoe. They provide community education and outreach, and host volunteers looking to clean up the lake. Their bumper stickers are ubiquitous around Northern Nevada and California:
(Above image found at keeptahoeblue.org)
The Lake Tahoe EIP, or Invasive Species Program, require motored boats to be inspected upon entry to the lake. On their website, they state that “Mandatory inspections will stop aquatic invasive species…BEFORE they enter the water.”
(Above image found at the Lake Tahoe page at usda.gov)
With the help of these and many other organizations, as well as legislation and support from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Lake Tahoe has experienced a slowing of the decline of deep-water clarity. Furthermore, pollution has greatly declined through these efforts. There is still plenty of work to be done, especially in regards to invasive species and shore degradation, but these organizations continue to raise awareness and lobby for legislative protection for Lake Tahoe and the surrounding areas.
Non-interview image and information sources include keeptahoeblue.org, tahoeboatinspections.com, and the USDA Forest Service website. Specific URLS can be found on our Resources Page.