Project complete: Clean Up The Lake team removes 12.5 tons of trash from Tahoe
As spring snow sprinkles the surface of Lake Tahoe, a team of divers works beneath the waves, inching toward completing a yearlong project to clean 72 miles along Big Blue’s shoreline.
Wide grins and high fives soon contrast Tuesday’s cold, windy weather at Edgewood Tahoe Resort as a handful of divers emerge for a final time, rising from the waves at the same location where they first dove in a year ago.
“Over the past year, despite winter weather, COVID and wildfire related challenges, our dive team has been in the water at every opportunity to complete this unforgettable effort,” said Colin West, founder and executive director of Clean Up The Lake. “While the dive team has removed many expected and unexpected items along the way, ultimately what we hope people remember is the length that one group of individuals was willing to go to in order to protect their home and their planet, and in turn people should ask themselves how they are choosing to contribute to preserving our environment today.”
The project began May 14, 2021, with divers plunging into the lake from the shore near Edgewood Tahoe. From there, divers traveled counterclockwise around the lake, reaching the West Shore by November. Plans were to have the project finish around that time, but smoke-filled days during the summer caused several canceled dives. Cold temperatures also created a need for dry-suit certified divers, of which there are fewer of in the Tahoe area.
Though delays caused the project to be extended by several months, the team of divers remained undaunted, dropping below the surface during snowy December days and working through the winter to reach the finish line back at Edgewood Tahoe.
In total, the project consisted of 81 dive days, with 189 separate clean-up dives. A total of 626 cylinders of air were used. The project made use of 136 trained volunteers who donated 6,715 hours of their time.
“It’s one of those things that’s hard to fathom everything that this project has been through between the fires, between COVID, between just challenges on the water with the weather and now here we are,” said Clean Up The Lake diver Meghan Burk. “This is a really, really proud moment.”
PEACE, QUIET AND TRASH
Burke’s been with the team since the beginning, having met West in 2019 at a dive shop. After a year of diving around Lake Tahoe, she said one thing continued to stand out as she sank beneath the waves and made her way toward the bottom.
“In the water it’s so peaceful, it’s quiet, and then also there’s all this trash,” Burk said. ”It’s such a juxtaposition of the beauty of Tahoe, but underneath the surface seeing what lies beneath. That’s probably the biggest moment, what sticks out to me, seeing those two different sides of Tahoe.”
In total, the team removed 24,797 pieces of litter, which weighed in at 25,281 pounds. Items found included sunglasses, old tires, cans, plastic bottles, 1980s Nikon film cameras, entire lamp posts, engagement rings, wallets, engine blocks, pieces of broken down boats, and cell phones, which in some instances have been dried out, turned back on, and sent back to their owners. The team also identified 482 items that were too heavy to lift. Plans are to return at a later date to pull those items from the lake bed.
Clean Up The Lake will collaborate with scientific institutions and environmental consultants to study the recovered litter and develop a better understanding of its impact on Lake Tahoe.
The project was made possible by a $100,000 matching donation from Tahoe Blue Vodka.
“Tahoe Blue Vodka sponsored this effort because we place tremendous value on the health of Lake Tahoe, not only because our vodka is inspired by its waters, but because it is such a huge part of what makes our community so special,” said Matt Levitt, Tahoe Blue Vodka founder, in a news release. “The perseverance of the dive team and volunteers who never gave up, and their commitment to continuing clean up efforts both in Lake Tahoe and other waterways in our region is inspiring.”
Contributions also came in from more than 135 Tahoe Fund donors, including Vail Resorts, and the Nevada Division of State Lands’ Lake Tahoe License Plate program and other local grant giving foundations.
“It’s very rare that somebody comes to you with a dream of something as big as a 72-mile scuba cleanup, but Colin (West) and his team came to us with that idea,” said Tahoe Fund CEO Amy Berry. “We honestly thought he was a little crazy at first, but they did a test project. They showed us they could do it … This project is a great example of what happens when a community comes together to solve a problem and we couldn’t be more excited to be part of it.”
In addition, the Tahoe Fund, with support from Tahoe Blue Vodka, recently announced it has commissioned artists to create a sculpture using some of the recovered items from the Lake. “Surfaced,” a permanent art installation, will be featured at the new Tahoe South Events Center to educate visitors about what lies beneath Tahoe’s blue waters.
Going forward, Clean Up The Lake has announced it will perform cleanups across four lakes this year.
Next week, the team will return to Donner Lake, where in 2020 volunteers removed 5,100 pounds of trash. Divers will record any changes from the eight-mile circumnavigation of the lake they did two years ago, while continuing to clean up additional litter.
Plans also include cleaning up Fallen Leaf Lake, June Lake, and a return to 20 hot spots identified at Lake Tahoe. Additionally, Clean Up The Lake will begin monitoring and surveying for invasive species and algal blooms.
“This project’s been a testament to how hard our team worked and what they’re capable of, and for us it’s literally just the beginning,” said West.
For more information or to donate to Clean Up The Lake’s efforts, visit cleanupthelake.org.
Aluminum cans: 4,527
Tennis/golf balls: 468
Justin Scacco is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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