Study aimed at reducing runoff
Sediment has been generally recognized as a major water pollutant for years, but information on how to prevent sedimentation effectively has been scarce.
A recently-announced study that will span three years aims to set industry standards on reducing soil erosion, the leading cause of sedimentation, and improve water quality.
Comprised of surprising bedfellows, three area ski resorts, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Sierra Business Council will attempt to determine cost effective and environmentally friendly ways of managing ski slopes, often pointed to as the main culprit of sediment-related water quality problems.
“The main issue at hand is water quality in the Sierras and in the whole west is at risk,” said Michael Hogan, president of Integrated Environmental Restoration, a consulting firm based in Tahoma that is involved in the study. “One of the biggest problems is that there is almost no data on what techniques work.”
In Hogan’s 17 years of experience, plenty of companies have made claims about techniques or products – usually products they’re selling – that can reduce erosion. Everyone makes the same claim, but there’s typically no one to check the results and see what works best.
John Loomis, director of operations at Northstar-at-Tahoe, a partner in the study, illustrated Hogan’s point.
“Straw, for example, has been used for years, and slowly we look at this and say, ‘Maybe this isn’t the best product out there,'” he said.
Knowing what erosion control techniques work can be much more cost effective than always trying out new products, Hogan said.
Water quality control boards, which set water discharge standards, and ski resorts, which are required to follow those standards, don’t always take such a harmonious approach to water quality. But this effort, the study’s organizers hope, could set a new standard for water quality enforcement.
“What’s interesting about this approach is it sets a model for a new form of governance,” said Amy Horne, the study’s project director for the Sierra Business Council.
“We think it’s an opportunity to get all the people who are involved,” Loomis said. “Basically we’re all partners in this. Like any marriage, sometimes we all go at it.”
Northstar-at-Tahoe, Heavenly, Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain have all signed on with the study to provide support, but many resorts have shown interest in the study’s results, which, when complete, will be available for anyone to use, Horne said.
“The ski areas also bring a lot of knowledge that’s site specific,” she said. “What’s really wonderful about this is it’s really combining the strengths of different kinds of knowledge.”
The study will focus not only on effective erosion control techniques, but it will also define what success is, or create a measuring stick with which to measure various methodologies.
Hogan, who once led revegetation efforts at a local ski resort, knows how difficult it can be to figure out methods that work. One of the problems, he said, is that agricultural solutions – such as putting seeds on top of the soil and hoping it grows – have been used when it would probably have been more appropriate to take an ecological approach. An ecological approach would look at what’s missing from the soil that’s keeping vegetation from growing.
“It starts to make sense when you look around because nobody waters the woods,” Hogan said. “We haven’t really had ecologists doing this work. Now it’s becoming more of an ecological realm issue.”
It’s also an issue that’s come to the forefront of public attention lately, organizers said.
“So now the Truckee River is listed as impaired for sediment and all the sudden people are asking, why is this going on?” Loomis said.
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