Report: Pollution widespread in Sierra waters
Scientists and watershed experts are skeptical of a new report that paints a grim picture of the health of Sierra Nevada rivers, lakes and streams.
More than three-quarters of the Sierra Nevada’s seemingly pristine watersheds have had a portion of their waterways deemed unsuitable for fishing, swimming or drinking at some point over the last five years, according to a 170-page “State of Sierra Waters” report by the South Lake Tahoe-based Sierra Nevada Alliance.
All but one of the Sierra’s watersheds have been impaired in some way by pollutants ranging from pesticides and heavy metals to sediment, according to the organization.
“This snapshot of Sierra waterways is surprising and very disappointing,” said Kate Winston, spokeswoman for the Sierra Nevada Alliance.
But scientists and other water quality experts questioned the accuracy and tone of the report. While scientists have known for years that erosion, which dumps excessive sediment into rivers and lakes, has been a problem in area waterways, heavy metals and chemical pollution has not been an established threat to most area water.
The Sierra Nevada Alliance claims Lake Tahoe has been “impacted” by mercury ” a heavy metal that can affect the nervous system, but scientists at the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the agency that regulates water quality at Lake Tahoe, said they were unaware of any issue with mercury at the lake.
In addition, the report alleges that, “The EPA has listed the lake as threatened for drinking, fishing, threatened and endangered species, habitat, fish tissue and freshwater habitat.”
But Lahontan environmental scientist Dave Roberts said the EPA does not even have a “threatened” list. Roberts compiles data on pollutants entering Lake Tahoe for a massive project called the Total Maximum Daily Load, required by the Clean Water Act.
Richard Anderson, editor and publisher of the Truckee-based California Fly Fisher magazine, said the report’s tone may be over-the-top.
“It raises some potential red flags that are worth discussing and researching,” said Anderson. “But it may be too alarmist in tone.”
Despite the report’s data that says local waters are threatened for fishing, Anderson said he had heard of no governmental warnings on the issue.
“I am unaware of any advisory from any state or federal agency that has warned us not to eat fish from any local impoundments,” Anderson said.
The report’s information, which was taken from a variety of governmental agencies and departments, was incomplete, according to the alliance. The lack of centralized state data made it impossible to determine why fishing, drinking and or swimming was discouraged or prohibited in waterways and for how long the areas were affected, said organization representatives.
“We don’t have the information to get a handle on the problem,” Joan Clayburgh, executive director of the alliance said. “It could be ongoing mercury contamination. It could be just a temporary incident that was cleaned up with no more problems.”
The alliance is asking that both California and Nevada give the public more information on the state of mountain water. They also encourage more funding for local watershed groups.
The health of Sierra waters is important not only to mountain communities, but to the state at large, the report noted. More than 60 percent of the state’s water comes from the 400-mile-long mountain range, according to the alliance.
Water rights tied to the Sierra are worth greater than $1.3 billion per year.
“Sierra water is critical to the health and spirit of Northern Nevada and California,” Winston said.
” Sierra Sun News Service reporter Amanda Fehd and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Volunteers are being sought to take water samples from creeks, streams and smaller lakes, including Lake Tahoe, in the Tahoe-Truckee watershed to get a snapshot of water quality at a single moment in time.