University research at Tahoe has a bright future | SierraSun.com

University research at Tahoe has a bright future

David Bunker
Sierra Sun

Ryan Salm/Sierra SunBob Richards and David Bunker watch from the UC Davis research vessel as a Secchi disc is lifted from the depths of Lake Tahoe on Thursday morning. A Secchi disc is used to test the clarity of a body of water.

Just as he has over the last 37 years, Bob Richards used his eagle eyes to pinpoint Lake Tahoe’s clarity; measured the instant a flat, white disk disappeared from view beneath the water ” 18.5 meters.

“[Richards] has taken more of these measurements than anyone alive today,” Geoff Schladow, director of UC Davis’s Tahoe Environmental Research Center, said Thursday aboard the university’s research vessel, the John Le Conte.

It was a pretty average day for the deckhands on the floating research platform as they took measurements and scooped plankton from the electric blue waters between Crystal Bay and Homewood.

But even in the 37 years Richard’s has tested, measured and examined the waters and biology of Tahoe, the lake has been changing. And that has forced the scientists and researchers to change with it.

Clarity has declined, new lake species have been introduced, and the lake has warmed.

“This year they are the highest water temperatures we have ever recorded,” Schladow said.

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Scientists have responded with better equipment, new programs and increased research facilities at the lake.

In October, the university will christen its new 45,500-square-foot Tahoe Center for the Environmental Sciences in Incline Village.

The grand opening will also mark the day researchers will no longer have to package lake samples and overnight them to labs in Davis two hours away. The new center will provide data analysis on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

And the university also has ambitious plans to sink $3 million into the Tahoe City Fish Hatchery, the Lake Forest building that houses the laboratory that will soon more to Incline Village.

But the new facilities will have little effect on the John Le Conte, and the crew that plies Tahoe’s waters between three and four times a week, doing on-the-water research.

The crew motors the boat out to the six buoys on the lake, four of which are on the north side of Tahoe, and checks the precipitation the floating stations collect. The buoys automatically send back information such as water temperature and wind speed, but researchers collect some data by hand and do maintenance.

It’s a pattern of data collection that has left Tahoe with a consistent and valuable set of measurements over the last 30-plus years.

The uniformity allows scientists to spot trends and make accurate comparisons.

“The long-term information is the substantive stuff that says ‘Tahoe has changed,'” said Richards, who retired a couple of years ago as the laboratory director, but still fills in on the boat at times.

California Senator Dave Cox, who spent the morning on the Le Conte hearing about the university’s research, said the efforts to preserve Tahoe’s famed clarity is valuable work.

“It is important to measure the clarity of the lake and take steps to increase [Tahoe’s clarity],” he said. “It’s a journey, I don’t know if you’d ever say it is a destination.”

– Opens October 14, 2006

– Center includes facilities for UC Davis, Sierra Nevada College, the Desert Reserach Institute and the Univerity of Nevada, Reno

– Three stories and 45,000 square feet

– center for environmental study of lakes

– Education center will show 3-dimensional view of Lake Tahoe, give public a chance to understand the research boat and labratory

– Earthquake retrofitting and structural improvements

– demolitioon of walls inside building

– new roof, windows ans siding

– new lab

– new office and conference space