Divers removed 25,000 pounds of trash from Lake Tahoe. Now they want to clean up more Sierra lakes

A first-of-its-kind project to clear underwater trash and trash along Lake Tahoe’s 72-mile shoreline wraps up Tuesday as divers complete the final leg of their trash collection circuit in the waters near Stateline, Nevada, where they started a year ago.

The amount of garbage picked up: 25,200 pounds, which will increase slightly with the final transport today.

And divers hope to repeat the feat for other lakes in the region, including Fallen Leaf, a small lake adjacent to Tahoe, and June Lake, a popular fishing and camping destination in the Eastern Sierra.

Divers from the non-profit organization Clean Up the Lake pick up debris from the bottom of Lake Tahoe in July. Over the course of a year, divers brought in 25,000 pounds of trash.

Nina Riggio/The Chronicle 2021

At Tahoe, divers – aided by boaters and other volunteers – completed 189 dives in 81 days. They pulled out cell phones, sunglasses, flip flops, vapes, cigarette butts, condoms, golf balls, ice cream sticks, broken fishing gear and plastic bags, along with countless aluminum cans and plastic and glass bottles. Divers also searched oddities like firework tubes, sex toys and a boombox, in addition to bulky items like car tires and building materials that were likely intentionally discarded. Larger and heavier objects, such as rusting engine blocks or abandoned sunken boats, were geotagged in the hope that they could be recovered later with sturdier equipment.

“It’s been a long year and I’m grateful that I was able to pull this off,” said Colin West, founder of Clean Up The Lake, the local nonprofit behind the cleanup.

The cleanup only made 25 feet; Tahoe is much deeper – over 1,600 feet at its deepest point – but diving to greater depths presents complex safety risks.

The lake has lost some of its characteristic clarity in recent years due to the proliferation of invasive species and the continued runoff of sediment. Picking up litter is unlikely to improve his overall health, researchers say, but has raised awareness of the various environmental issues plaguing Tahoe.

West’s group’s first project was an underwater cleanup of nearby Donner Lake in 2020 that produced more than 5,100 pounds of waste. When West announced the Tahoe venture later that year, widespread concerns about the impacts on the lake from millions of pandemic tourists helped propel him to prominence; the group raised approximately $300,000 for the effort, including a $60,000 grant from the Nevada State Land Division.

Now West has secured partial funding for underwater cleanups at Fallen Leaf and June Lake.

Divers also return to Donner Lake to measure the amount of trash that has accumulated over the past two years and mark where it has accumulated in the underwater landscape. They will also collect data on algal blooms and invasive species for scientific research.

Divers from the non-profit organization Clean Up the Lake worked for a year to remove trash from the bottom of Lake Tahoe.  Now they hope to move on to cleaning up other lakes in the Sierra.

Divers from the non-profit organization Clean Up the Lake worked for a year to remove trash from the bottom of Lake Tahoe. Now they hope to move on to cleaning up other lakes in the Sierra.

Nina Riggio/The Chronicle 2021

West will launch a similar monitoring effort this year on the Tahoe side of Nevada, examining trash collected from depths of up to 75 feet.

“We want to see how far this issue goes,” West said.

Increased awareness of construction debris dumped into the lake prompted the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which oversees construction projects in the Tahoe Basin, to add a new requirement to shoreline building permits this year: Builders must provide “visual documentation” of the underwater landscape around the job site before and after construction to ensure the area is clean.

Most of the trash collected at Tahoe over the past year has been recycled or properly disposed of, West said. But some will be used in the creation of an art installation at the new Tahoe South Events Center, a large convention venue under construction near South Shore casinos that is slated to open in 2023.

According to Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund, who coordinated fundraising for Clean Up The Lake, “We hope this inspires greater environmental stewardship and reminds those who love Lake Tahoe that it is all of us to take care of it.”

Gregory Thomas is The Chronicle’s Lifestyle and Outdoors Editor. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas

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