Divers to attempt unprecedented Lake Tahoe clean-up
Special to the Sierra Sun
Two Lake Tahoe residents are taking steps to address the lake’s long-time trash problem by swimming the 72 miles around Tahoe.
Tahoe Dive Center owner Matt Meunier and Clean Up the Lake founder Colin West plan to spend nearly four months scuba diving around the lake, all while picking up garbage, an undertaking they are hoping will be the biggest cleanup in Tahoe’s history.
Meunier approached West, who is a filmmaker, about the idea of making a film about swimming around the lake.
“I loved the thought but only if it was going to mean something,” said West.
The two men will get in the water three to four times a week starting June 1, 2020. Each session, they will use three air tanks which will take them about a mile and a half all while picking up trash.
West has been interested in making a difference for several years, after he visited Belize and saw the trash problem there. He started the nonprofit, Clean Up the Cayes.
“I had a burning desire to do something more other than lining the pocket of the alcohol industry,” said West, who has primarily made films and shows about the food and wine industry.
He then decided to focus his attention on the problem at home.
“With tourism increasing, so many jurisdictions working hard to manage the trash problem across two states, no one is able to pay attention to the trash under the surface of the lake that dates back all the way to the ’70s in areas,” West said in a press release. “I decided it was time to make a difference in our own backyard. Tahoe appears to be pristine and beautiful, but under the surface, there are quite a few issues going on with pollution.”
He’s now in the process of getting dba’s for Clean Up the Plastic and Clean Up the Lake to start focusing on Tahoe.
Microplastics in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe has recently gotten attention because of research done by the Desert Research Institute (DRI) proving there are microplastics in the lake and in the Truckee River.
Microplastics are defined by DRI as being plastics that are the size of a pencil eraser or smaller.
Assistant Research Professor Hydrology at DRI, Dr. Monica Arienzo realized a lack of research done on microplastics and got a grant to study them. Arienzo and her partner, Zoe Harrold, took surface level samples from Emerald Bay, Nevada Beach, Kings Beach and Tahoe Keys.
They were given samples of the Upper and Lower Truckee river by Kyle Chandler-Isacksen, co-director of the Be the Change Project.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe used its citizen science group, Pipe Keepers, to gather samples from storm drains that flow into the lake.
“We found microplastics in pretty much all of the samples,” Arienzo said.
Because microplastics are under-researched, Arienzo can’t say where they are coming from. Part of her and Chandler-Isacksen’s research is to determine what the microplastics are so they can figure out the source of the problem.
“It seems so bizarre that there are little plastics floating around in the water, snow or air,” Chandler-Isacksen said. Although the research is not definitive, his gut tells him there will be negative impacts from microplastics.
Arienzo said her biggest concern is smaller animals ingesting the plastics.
West has approached DRI about working together on his project and Arienzo is open to the opportunity.
“I got into science because I scuba dive, so for me, if I could work with them or dive with them, I’d be stoked,” Arienzo said. “It’d really be coming full-circle.”
Besides working with DRI, West is looking for more help.
During their swim, they will pinpoint areas using a GPS that need extra attention. They are looking for 18 to 30 volunteers to focus on those areas.
West and Meunier are also looking for funding. They are seeking state and federal grants but they’ve also started a GoFundMe account.
They are asking for $80,000 to help cover the costs of scuba equipment, trash cleanup supplies, gas for the boat, filming supplies and man hours since both men will be taking time off from their jobs.
To kick off the project, West and Meunier are hosting a preliminary cleanup Saturday, Sept. 21, on the east shore of the lake. This event will mark the start of filming for the “Making a Difference” documentary about the project.
West is aiming to get the film out in early 2021. In the film, he will highlight other groups that are finding solutions for the microplastics and trash problems.
“We want to show people who are trying to find a solution,” said West.
West believe most of the microplastics are coming from trash, so he wants to use this project to influence people to stop littering.
“I guarantee you that if I took you down there, within half a tank, I could find trash that’s been buried down there for 25 years,” West said.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe engages the community by hosting beach clean-up days after major holidays. They have been collecting data on items they’ve collected. Since 2014, they’ve collected over 125,000 pieces of plastic from the beach.
DRI is also fighting the trash problem. Education Program Manager Meghan Collins recently released an informational flyer urging people to “beat microplastics” by using reusable items such as coffee mugs and utensils, not buying skin products with microbeads, washing synthetic clothing less often, picking up trash and using reusable shopping bags.
Although Arienzo is not convinced all microplastics come from trash, she does think West’s project could help find a correlation between beach trash and trash found in the lake.
The one thing everyone agrees on; even if trash isn’t the cause of microplastics, everyone still needs to do their part to clean up.
“(Fixing the problem) requires and hinges on a science component and it’s about making a connection to community members who would be interested in mitigating the problem and finding a solution,” Collins said.
To donate to the 72-mile cleanup project, or to see a trailer about the film, visit http://www.gofundme.com/f/72-mile-lake-tahoe-scuba-clean-up.
To learn more about DRI’s research, visit http://www.dri.edu/newsroom/blog/401-featured-project/5842-problem-plastic-investigating-microplastic-pollution-in-nevada-s-waterways.
Laney Griffo is a reported with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com.