What about Donner?: Lake’s water quality, clarity recieves only a fraction of the attention of Tahoe | SierraSun.com

What about Donner?: Lake’s water quality, clarity recieves only a fraction of the attention of Tahoe

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunBeach goers enjoy a day at Donner Lake. Despite it's size and heavy use, Donner received little research or water quality assessment attention.

It’s just a fact of life; Donner Lake plays second fiddle to Lake Tahoe.

“At the watershed council we like to say Donner Lake is in the glory shadow of Lake Tahoe,” said Lisa Wallace, executive director of the Truckee River Watershed Council. “If it was farther away from Tahoe I think it would be really famous.”

But the attention defefict isn’t just in the minds of tourists, it’s also in the amount of scientific scrutiny the body of water receives. Whereas Lake Tahoe has its own clarity standards, goals, and even its own governing entity, Donner Lake doesn’t have its own standards or objectives.

Instead it is lumped into Truckee River watershed standards from the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Lauri Kemper, supervising engineer with the board.

In fact, Kemper said, Lahontan has no monitoring on Donner Lake compared to the collaborative work on Lake Tahoe of UC Davis, Lahontan, and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

“Lake Tahoe gets more attention because it is federally designated an Outstanding National Water Resource for its extraordinary clarity, purity, and unique situation,” Kemper said. “But Donner is an important part of the watershed.”

Tim Tweedie, a 25-year resident of Donner Lake, has his own observations of Donner Lake over the years.

“I am just concerned with the water quality,” Tweedie said, who has collected bags of litter from the lake. “When I dive in the water the distance I can see is less each year.”

Tweedie said that although fees are being collected and money spent attempting to catch sediment before it reaches Donner Lake, with no baseline water quality data to measure improvements or setbacks no one knows what good these efforts are doing.

One type of litter Tweedie has recently collected from the lake recently has been firework debris.

“I love [the fireworks], but is it good for the lake?” Tweedie said.

Steve Randall, general manager of the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District, said the company that fires off the yearly firework show over West End Beach has to clean up after themselves. District workers also goes back the next day to check, Randall said, and any fireworks that are missed are biodegradable.

Kemper said the Water Quality Control Board studied the after effects of fireworks in Lake Tahoe and found trash is a bigger issue than any chemicals the fireworks might contain.

Wallace questioned whether or not trash is the biggest problem.

“Between stormwater runoff, erosion and trash, if we were to rank these things, would we focus on litter first? We would want to start at the highest impacts,” Wallace said.

The watershed council, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Truckee Donner Land Trust, has plans underway to restore Negro Canyon, which Wallace said is feeding tons of sediment into Donner Lake through Gregory Creek.

“We’ll be launching that project in the next three or four weeks,” Wallace said.

Billy Mack Canyon to the west also carries sediment into the lake, drawing on sand used on Interstate 80 that ends up in Summit and Frog creeks, she said.

“There is literally six to eight feet of sand in the canyon in some places,” she said.

Wallace said Caltrans’ current project on I-80 includes the most extensive stormwater runoff controls for the stretch of freeway since it was built, designed to catch the sand and salt washing off the road.

Closer to the lake, Town of Truckee roadwork on Donner Pass Road will also add runoff controls and sediment-catching basins, further reducing what reaches the lake.

All of the projects are opportunistic, Wallace said, and Donner Lake is still in need of a comprehensive plan to study, monitor and improve water quality.

“If enough people in the community decide they want to do that it could happen through the town, the watershed council, or some kind of partnership,” Wallace said.

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