Trash problem piling up around Lake Tahoe

Laney Griffo
Special to the Sierra Sun

The pandemic has inspired people to get outdoors and visit Lake Tahoe. But with the influx of visitors also comes an influx of trash and land managers are struggling to keep up with the problem, not for lack of trying.

Every year, the League to Save Lake Tahoe hosts its July 5 beach clean up. The organization has been tracking data since 2015 and since that year, 141,955 total items of trash have been collected — which equates to 8,417 pounds of trash.

The top five most common trash categories are cigarette butts, random plastic pieces, food wrappers, food waste, and paper pieces. The amount of litter from every category collected in 2019 has increased since 2015.

While 2020 data is not as accurate, because of canceled fireworks and safety concerns of large gatherings, the litter numbers still aren’t good; 136 volunteers removed 1,048 gallons of trash from six sites.

“… leaving the trash next to the trash can isn’t cleaning up after yourself. This isn’t horseshoes, it’s not the closest to the dumpster wins.”— Jesse PattersonLeague to Save Lake Tahoe

“Trash has always been a challenge but this year, COVID-19 has added pressure,” said U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Public Services Staff Officer Daniel Cressy.

Cressy added that it’s not just that more people are visiting the beaches but that existing infrastructure is overwhelmed.

The forest service unit hasn’t been able to hire as many staff members this year because of COVID-19. On top of that, Cressy said people are handling their trash differently. For example, he said people are bagging their trash but leaving the bags outside of dumpsters, either because the dumpsters are full or people aren’t comfortable touching them.

“I would argue that leaving the trash next to the trash can isn’t cleaning up after yourself,” said Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer, League to Save Lake Tahoe. “This isn’t horseshoes, it’s not the closest to the dumpster wins.”

Leaving the bags out attracts wildlife, which almost defeats the purpose. Patterson said he encourages people to bring their trash home if the dumpster is full.

More density, more impact

California State Parks is seeing similar issues. They are removing 100,000 pounds of trash per week from Tahoe and Donner park units.

They estimate that it will cost nearly $250,000 in 2020 to stay on top of trash removal and because that money comes out of the operational budget, they will likely see a negative impact on staffing in the future because of it.

The data collected comes from Donner, Tahoe State Recreation Area, Kings Beach State Recreation Area, DL Bliss, Sugar Pine Point and Emerald Bay.

Visitors at DL Bliss fill 30 dumpsters a week, (California State Parks assumes each dumpster equates to 800 pounds of trash). Kings Beach fills nearly 25 per week and is the only site that doesn’t have camping which means that trash is coming mostly from day-use visitors.

California State Parks Sierra District Superintendent Matt Green thinks trash at Kings Beach is also coming from short-term rentals. His team uses special colored trash bags at the state park so they can track how much is coming from their site.

Green sees a correlation between density and accessibility and the amount of trash.

“The parks that have the greatest impact are the ones with the greatest density,” Cressy said, adding Vikingsholm and Kings Beach are examples of that.

He also said areas where people have to hike in and out of the beach, he sees more trash dispersed along the way to the dumpster.

Cressy said self-service beaches like Chimney Beach or Zephyr Shoals see bigger impacts because there isn’t staff to help.

On the Nevada side, Sand Harbor has the biggest issue, according to Allen Wooldridge, Nevada State Parks supervisor, because of the beach’s popularity. Woolridge said the park has nine dumpsters, and over 20 trash enclosures but enforcing litter statutes can be difficult.

“When we identify someone or a group who we think might litter, we often hand out trash bags and educate why it is important to clean up after themselves,” Woolridge said. “We have seen this approach rather effective, but it takes a lot of people to identify all these groups.”


Tahoe Fund CEO Amy Berry sees the issue as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s great that more people are enjoying the outdoors but on the other hand, it’s people who are new to the outdoors and don’t understand the ethos.

“I joke that it sort of feels like Six Flags,” Berry said. “People come up to Tahoe for the day, they have this amazing time, they’re out on the water, out on the trails, they’re partying it up and they go home. If that were Six Flags, there would be a whole army of people that would be cleaning the park for the people’s arrival the very next day, but we just aren’t Six Flags.”

The problem with trash is that it doesn’t just stay on the beaches where it can be easily picked up. Wildlife eats it or it blows into the lake.

Brant Allen is a field lab director and boat captain for the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, and he’s been scuba diving in Tahoe for 32 years. One thing he sees a lot of out in the middle of the lake is balloons.

“I could tell what time of year it was just by the balloons,” Allen said. “If there are a lot of red hearts or footballs, it’s February; if there are a lot of graduation-themed ones, it’s May or June.”

Allen sees three categories of trash in the lake, old trash from pre 1980s, new trash from the last 20 years and unintentional trash.

“Accidental trash will always be a problem, people don’t mean to drop their wallet in the lake or lose a flip-flop,” Allen said.

Groups like Clean up the Lake are removing the old trash, and Allen thinks ethics are changing when it comes to new trash.

“I don’t see a lot of intentional, finish your beer can and throw it in the lake type of behavior which is encouraging,” Allen said.

Patterson said the data collected from the Keep Tahoe Red, White and Blue Cleanups suggest larger litter is becoming less common, while smaller pieces of litter, like cigarette butts, are becoming more common.

“That’s concerning because out of sight, out of mind,” Patterson said. “Just because the beach is made of sand, doesn’t make it an ashtray,” he added.

Regan Beach in South Lake Tahoe has seen an increase in cigarette butts over the years.


People who have made Tahoe their home, or just love Tahoe, say it’s heartbreaking to see the trash problem and the numbers of pounds of trash, or amount of cigarette butts can be overwhelming.

But, it’s not all bad, there are people stepping up to help and to change the culture.

Incline Village General Improvement District Parks Superintendent Steven Phillips is seeing a lot of success at Incline beaches.

“We’re doing everything possible to stay on top of the problem,” Phillips said. He has a crew of 14 people who work 24/7 to keep the parks and beaches clean. Although that is about 40% of normal staffing, he’s added additional dumpsters and ordered more frequent collection.

Phillips praises his staff but an advantage Incline Village has is that beaches are private; people must be residents or guests of residents to use them.

“There are a lot of caring, concerned people who live here,” Phillips said.

Earlier this year, the Incline Village General Improvement District Board of Trustees passed a smoking ban at Incline beaches. Phillips said he has security at the beaches enforcing the ban and has seen a decrease in cigarette butts left behind.

The district has also collaborated with Washoe County to install more bear boxes along high traffic walking paths and Phillips said that has helped.

Other land managers are also looking for creative solutions to combat the staffing shortfalls.

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit handed out trash bags at beaches on Fourth of July.

“That was well received,” Cressy said. “We saw those bags being used.”

He said part of the solution is empowering visitors, helping them understand the problem and the rationale behind the solutions and giving them the resources they need to help.

“While we are seeing many visitors not quite pulling it off, we are also seeing many visitors that are,” Cressy said.

Nevada State Parks works around the clock to keep Sand Harbor clean.

“We run our own trash system so that we can remove trash when there is a large volume rather than wait on specific days and vendors,” Woolridge said. “This allows us to have flexibility and be proactive on trash piling up.”

They were able to get a new trash truck and new dumpsters that they hope will arrive soon.

“Additionally, we have rangers who come back to the park nightly to ensure the major trash is picked up and all the enclosures are closed and locked,” Woolridge said. “We have staff that are coming in earlier this year to pick up litter within the park to ensure the public sees a clean park. I firmly believe that when the majority of people see a clean area, they are more apt to keep it clean.”


Green, of the California State Parks Sierra District, is also encouraged by the increase in public-private sector collaborations and in volunteers.

“The community is far more engaged in this topic than in the past,” Green said.

Patterson believes cleaning up litter is the first step in fighting bigger environmental issues, referring to picking up trash as, “the gateway drug of activism.”

“If we can’t solve litter, we’re not solving climate change,” Patterson said.

The Blue Crew, through the League to Save Lake Tahoe has been stepping up in a major way to help. Even though it couldn’t host the normal big July 5 cleanup, there were 476 volunteer hours logged. Since 2015, volunteers have logged nearly 7,000 hours cleaning up.

The League has trained 61 Blue Crew leaders, 17 of which have come from outside of the Basin.

“I’m optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction,” Patterson said, adding that he’s seen a lot of unity in the community.

Laney Griffo is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. Contact her at

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.