While Lake Tahoe is due for a big winter, are we prepared for the potential negative environmental impacts? | SierraSun.com

While Lake Tahoe is due for a big winter, are we prepared for the potential negative environmental impacts?

As seen on Monday from above the River Ranch Lodge in Tahoe City, the Truckee River's waters are barely hanging on as above-average temperatures continue amid the Western drought.
Courtesy Steve Tietze |

KINGS BEACH, Calif. — Amid serious drought, hopes are high this winter will be a snowy one — but with big storms comes the potential of negative impacts to Lake Tahoe’s famed clarity.

Recent forecasts continue to predict El Niño will likely continue through the Northern Hemisphere this winter, bringing the chance of above normal precipitation for southern California and below normal for the northern portion of the state.

“El Niño unfortunately is not a good predictor of wintertime of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada,” said Nina Oakley, assistant research climatologist for the Western Regional Climate Center, at the presentation “Winter is coming — is Tahoe ready?” last week in Kings Beach. “ … We have things that help us predict 30 day(s) or down to the two-week scale, but as far as now saying how much precipitation we will receive in the winter, (we) don’t have a good predictor for that.

“We lie in a region of unpredictability.”

Oakley added that should the region experience a wetter-than-normal winter, simulation models indicate a majority of that precipitation would occur in the months of January through March.

It’s a snowy winter that Tahoe City resident Tony Remenih is hoping for this year.

“Fifty percent of Tahoe is winter to me, and we’ve missed it for years,” said Remenih, who was one of about 20 members of the public who attended the presentation. “It would be marvelous to enjoy all of the recreational aspects and environmental benefits of winter — to replenish the water table, of course, and to maintain the economic.”

‘giant mortar and pestle’

Yet, with big snow loads come large snowmelt and stormwater runoff, carrying pollutants and fine sediment predominately from developed areas into Lake Tahoe.

“I think of the highway as this giant mortar and pestle,” said Heather Segale, education and outreach director for UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center in Incline Village. “We are driving around, grinding those particles finer and finer, and when it rains or when the snow melts, it washes it into the lake.”

With the drought there has been less inflow into Lake Tahoe, and therefore, fewer contaminants, allowing the lake’s average clarity to improve.

According to the latest State of the Lake Report, the average clarity level for Lake Tahoe was 77.8 feet in 2014, up from the previous year of 70.2 feet.

This represents a 7.5 foot increase and is nearly 14 feet greater than the 64.1 foot average measurement of 1997 — the last time, perhaps ironically, the region experienced a strong El Niño, which coincided with the lowest average clarity value recorded.

“As we can see during the drought period, the lake actually does heal itself, so we know if we can reduce the amount of particles … the lake actually does regain clarity,” Segale said during the presentation, which was hosted by the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

‘What you don’t see’

Meanwhile, local government entities such as Placer County and Tahoe City Public Utility District are taking steps to address stormwater pollution before entering the lake.

“Probably the biggest water quality project that was ever undertaken was the installation of the sewer systems,” said Cindy Gustafson, TCPUD general manager. “While no one likes to think about what happens when you flush, it’s very important to our environment that we’re transporting all of that sewage out of the Tahoe Basin.”

The TCPUD sewer system consists of approximately 150 miles of sewer pipe and 21 lift stations, serving 7,540 customers within 31 square miles from Dollar Hill to Emerald Bay, according to the district.

As for Placer County, its has carried out several water quality improvement projects including the Kings Beach Commercial Core Project in the past few years, pointed out Kansas McGahan, senior engineer for the county’s Department of Public Works.

“When you see projects on the ground from Placer County, what you are seeing sometimes is that’s just a road project, or that’s just a transportation project,” she said. “What you don’t see are the things that are being installed below ground and the water quality components that are a part of (the) project.”

For instance, that includes advanced treatment filters that remove fine-sized sediment, nutrients and metals from stormwater runoff, McGahan said.

While the average annual clarity in general continues to improve, it is still short of the 97.4 feet restoration target set by federal and state regulators.

‘What can I do?’

“At this point, you may be wondering I’ve heard a lot about these larger projects, but what can I do?” said Savannah Rudroff, natural resources associate for the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “First and foremost, the biggest thing you can do is help spread the word and raise awareness of these issues.”

That’s exactly what Homewood resident Leslie Smith intends to do after hearing last week’s presentation.

“I work on this kind of stuff, so I am aware of it,” she said. “… (The presentation was) really informative, and it’s inspired me to tell more people about what’s going on.”

Beyond spreading the word, Rudroff recommends getting involved in the League’s Pipe Keepers program, a community-based volunteer monitoring program that examines stormwater entering Lake Tahoe and its tributaries.

Established in 2012, the program consists of volunteers who monitor stormwater going into Lake Tahoe from pipes all around the lake by collecting water samples, making observations and taking images.

By doing that, it helps the League identify the biggest sources of pollutants flowing into Lake Tahoe and work toward finding solutions.

Among those in attendance was Dana Spencer, a pipe keeper, who encouraged others at the presentation to get involved in the program.

“It’s easy, and we should do it because it’s what we citizens can do,” she said. “I’m not a scientist. I’m not an analyst. … You can help (the lake). Why not?”

A companion “Winter is coming — is Tahoe ready?” presentation occurred Tuesday night in South Lake Tahoe.