Clean Up the Lake set for unprecedented summer project

Nonprofit plans to collect trash around entirety of Tahoe’s coastline

Clean Up the Lake will begin work along Tahoe's shoreline in May.
Clean Up the Lake

Hundreds of aluminum cans, dozens of sunglasses, several old tires, and many other items are hidden beneath the waves of Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake.

The gems of the Sierra Nevada have long harbored a dirty secret under their pristine waters, but the nonprofit diving crew, Clean Up the Lake, has been steadily working to change that.

After a summer of diving around the shores of Donner Lake, which resulted in more than 5,100 pounds of trash removed from the lake bed, Clean Up the Lake is now taking aim at Lake Tahoe in an unprecedented effort to dive along 72 miles of shoreline.

“It will be the first ever circumnavigated cleanup of Lake Tahoe, and very possibly the largest cleanup in Tahoe’s history,” said Founder and Director of Clean Up the Lake Colin West during a webinar focused on the nonprofit’s plans for the summer.

Aside from diving in Donner Lake this past summer, Clean Up the Lake, which was founded in 2018, dove around roughly 7.1 miles of the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe and in six days of work pulled up more than 1,700 pounds of trash.

As part of the work to remove debris from the bottom of the area’s lakes, the team at Clean Up the Lake has worked to categorize the trash they’ve found while marking the location of larger, heavier items to be pulled out of the water at a later date.

“Removing the litter is just one step of the Clean Up the Lake process,” said Data Management Coordinator Hannah Urrutia. “The next step is the litter categorization.”

The nonprofit has broken down the trash it’s pulled up into nine material categories that include plastic, foamed plastic, cloth, metal, rubber, and others. Those categories are then broken down into 77 subcategories, which the nonprofit then collaborates with other entities like the Desert Research Institute to further understand how and where litter is entering the lake.

In terms of what’s been pulled up, Clean Up the Lake said metal items are the dominant material found in terms of total weight.

“We kind of expect metal to be the most dominant because it’s so heavy,” said Environmental Scientist Zoe Harrold, Ph. D. “But plastic was the second most dominant by weight, and that’s pretty interesting because plastic is so much lighter than metal.”

Among the more novel items pulled up from the depths, according to the team, have been old boom boxes, decades-old aluminum cans, phones, and a Tupac Shakur hat.

“It’s always interesting to see what we come up with,” said West.

Part of Clean Up the Lake’s work is also to identify litter hot spots in Lake Tahoe. Among the sites most polluted, according to the team, was the south side of Sand Harbor. During a single day’s work at the location divers pulled up more than 95 pounds of aluminum cans.

72 miles and beyond

On May 14, Clean Up the Lake will launch its 72-mile cleanup of the shoreline of Lake Tahoe.

The team plans on diving three times a week with a goal of cleaning roughly one mile per day. Divers will work to pick up trash at depths up to 25 feet and will work through the end of November.

The work is being supported by Tahoe Blue Vodka, which will match every dollar contributed to the project fund up to $100,000.

The funds, said West, “Really made what we’re doing here possible and really supported our organization in a way even past this 72-mile cleanup.”

While short-term plans include work this summer around Lake Tahoe, West said the nonprofit envisions on diving to deeper depths, working with other local groups to create art sculptures out of the trash it’s pulled from the water, working to clean areas of the Truckee River, and identifying locations that have the most trash in order take larger groups of volunteer divers out to.

West added that Clean Up the Lake has had more than 1,000 individuals express interest in helping the cause, but that they’re always looking for additional help and donations.

For more information or to donate to Clean Up the Lake, visit

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at or 530-550-2643.

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