Those who have visited Lake Tahoe know that it is a scenically stunning natural treasure. With a maximum depth of 1,645 feet and over 75 miles of shoreline, Lake Tahoe is also one of the deepest and largest lakes in the United States. Nearly three million people visit Lake Tahoe every year to experience its crystal clear waters, high mountain peaks and seemingly endless recreational opportunities. Increasingly, these visitors are transcending traditional tourist activities and taking steps to preserve the Lake’s environmental health by engaging in stewardship and citizen science opportunities.
Unfortunately, conventional tourism can have an adverse environmental impact. After busy summer weekends, Tahoe’s beaches are often littered with thousands of pounds of bottle caps, cigarette butts, and plastic bags left from shore-goers. Road traffic and congestion are polluting Tahoe’s air, while winter road sanding threatens the Lake’s famed water clarity (these traction particles get ground up by car tires and washed directly into the Lake).
Perhaps most worrisome is the recent introduction and spread of aquatic invasive species in Lake Tahoe. Species such as Eurasian watermilfoil and curlyleaf pondweed have been carried into the Lake on visiting watercraft and are now spreading, covering shallow waters with a thick mat of green.
To be fair, not all visitors to Lake Tahoe carelessly toss their trash on beaches or drive their cars around the Lake in circles. Many choose to Keep Tahoe Blue by riding bicycles, taking public transportation and practicing Leave No Trace ethics while enjoying Tahoe’s beaches and trails.
A comprehensive inspection program helps catch stowaway invasive species before boats are launched in the Lake, a critical component in ensuring that other potential invaders such as zebra and quagga mussels are not introduced. These are very positive steps towards minimizing the impacts of tourism; however, I believe that visitors and locals should aim to leave the Lake in a better state than they found it.
But how can an everyday tourist actively tackle issues such as sediment pollution or invasive species? The League to Save Lake Tahoe has your opportunities.
Founded in 1957 in response to unchecked pollution and development in the Tahoe Basin, The League to Save Lake Tahoe has been working with Tahoe’s scientific, political and community organizations to ensure the environmental health and beauty of the Lake. Perhaps best known by the slogan, Keep Tahoe Blue, it has recently created a suite of opportunities for Tahoe locals and visitors alike to engage in meaningful citizen science activities.
The most easily accessible way to get involved is through a beach cleanup. These fun, social gatherings take place throughout the summer months, providing Tahoe locals and visitors a way to improve Lake Tahoe’s health and appearance while exploring its beautiful shoreline. Litter collected by volunteers is counted and analyzed by League staff to monitor the different types of pollutants, informing how to prioritize community outreach and education initiatives designed to target specific issues.
Through the Eyes on the Lake program, adventurists learn to identify a report on the presence/absence of invasive aquatic plants while you hike, swim, kayak and SUP along Tahoe’s shore. A team of volunteers produces data used by agencies around the Lake, and have already identified a number of new infestations, facilitating removal efforts before these populations become large and expensive to control. You can literally “protect while you play".
For those visiting in rain or snow, the Pipe Keepers program fits your visit. These hardy volunteers take water samples at storm water pipes dumping directly into the Lake to measure turbidity (the fancy word for cloudiness) of the water. This data is used to track whether pipes are becoming more or less dirty over time. This allows the worst polluting “problem pipes” to be identified, enabling investigation and improvement of upstream factors contributing to the poor conditions.
Whatever your age, interests or amount of time in Tahoe, there’s a way to join the stewardship effort. In doing so, you might just start to feel a bit like a local, and you’ll certainly take pride in knowing that you left the place cleaner than you found it.
To get involved, signup for an upcoming event here.