Project takes land back to nature
TAHOE VISTA – Over 40 years ago the first truckload of dirt, contaminated with gasoline and oil, was hauled and dumped into the fragile Snow Creek wetland area near Tahoe Vista.
“Wetlands back in the 60s had no values other than to fill,” said Rick Robinson, wildlife program coordinator for the California Tahoe Conservancy.
The dumping continued over the years filling the wetland’s natural depression and now the mound of contaminated dirt is 4 acres large and 6 feet high.
Today the first loads of contaminated dirt are being removed from the wetland as part of the largest wetland restoration project in the North Shore. And as each load is trucked away on this $4.2-million project, the environmentally sensitive area gets closer and closer to ecological recovery. Over 25,000 cubic yards of the contaminated dirt exists today. This will require 14,000 truck loads, said Rick Henry from R.J. Gordon Construction. The last truckload should be hauled off in mid-October, Henry said.
Wetlands are extremely important to Tahoe because they act as natural filtration systems allowing silt and nutrients to settle before they enter the lake, and over the years wetlands around Lake Tahoe have been drastically reduced.
“We’ve lost 75 percent of our wetlands basin wide,” said Robinson.
Many of the wetlands were lost with developments because people didn’t know the value of them.
“They act as nutrient sponges,” said Bob Richards, field lab director for the Tahoe Research Group.
The sponges trap silt and nutrients that greatly affect diminishing water clarity. Over the years wetlands have been identified as important resources, but in the past that was unknown.
“People thought they were boggy areas that were only breeding areas for mosquitoes,” Richards said.
For 30 years Richards has tested lake clarity for the Tahoe Research Group with a secchi disk. Thirty years ago the white disk could be spotted at a depth of 100 feet; today it can only be seen at about 65 feet.
“When wetlands are removed, sediment and soil that comes down streams is basically shot down into the lake,” said Richards.
The depletion of wetland areas is a problem when it comes down to lake clarity and the Conservancy has taken action to fix the problem.
The project will bring the basin one step closer to bringing back the basin’s wetlands.
Wildlife continue to roam around the wetland area as restoration efforts continue on this property. Canada geese, an ibis and fish put up with the noise and mess.
The restoration on the wetland didn’t start until recently so the construction crew would miss the breeding season of water fowl and spawning fish.
“We didn’t want to bother them too much with our project,” said Robinson.
Part of the construction will require 30 feet of culvert to be placed under North Lake Boulevard, replacing the current culverts that each only measure about 3 feet.
Part of the problem with these small culverts is periodic flooding and fish accommodation.
“We will maintain a passage way for fish,” said Robinson.
The new culvert will have a small passage way at the bottom that will allow continuous flow of water and a passage way for fish.
When you make a way for fish, you also make a clearing for bacteria and other organisms that are helpful to the environment, said Robinson.
When finished, the wetland area should have a small pond at the excavation site and two streams instead of the existing one.
Although the construction crew should be off the site later this year, the process of restoring a wetland takes much longer.
“It’s amazing how much time it takes,” said Robinson.
The finished pond will be smaller than the previous one, but according to the Conservancy it will be better.
“It will be a much, much better pond from a habitat perspective,” said Robinson.
The previous pond on the wetland would get to warm for fish, said Robinson, often up to 85 degrees. That is hot enough to kill fish.
The Long Road to recovery
n 1987 – The California Tahoe Conservancy purchased
the 37-acre lot.
n A team of experts is assembled to determine how
to best restore the land.
n Funding process begins for the $4.2 million project.
n Alternatives for the site plans are developed
and presented to the public for comment.
n 1995 – Final plan is identified.
n 1998 to present – Seeds and plants are gathered
from the site for germination at Washoe Lake with
the Nevada Division of Forestry.
n May 13 – After the Conservancy purchased
the house on the corner lot, it was burned down
by the fire department.
n July – Kelly Erosion starts to salvage much
of the sod on the property so it can be planted when
excavation is done. Willows are also salvaged.
n Mid-October – Trucks will haul the last of the
contaminated dirt off the site. It will be hauled to
Nevada where it will be processed and later used
to cover landfills.
n September – Replanting will begin.
n September – New culvert and fish passage will be
placed under Highway 28.
n 2002 – Maintenance contract with R.J. Gordon will
end. The wetland will be completely recovered.
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Nevada County is now likely to remain in the red tier barring “extenuating circumstances,” thanks to changes to the state’s reopening blueprint announced this week.