A long view on what the drought means for Tahoe
April 1, 2015
Having grown up in Tahoe, during a drought year in my teens, I recall wading in front of Lakeland Village for what seemed like a mile to reach a point where we could dunk fully underwater. However, the current drought is among the most significant Tahoe has faced, and a warming climate will likely intensify the effects of future droughts.
At the League to Save Lake Tahoe, we're often asked what the drought means for the Lake. The answer isn't straightforward.
By warming Tahoe's shallow shorewaters, the drought creates hospitable conditions for invasive species and algal blooms. On the other hand, less rainfall may lead to short-term improvements in lake clarity, because stormwater washes fine sediments from roads and parking lots into the Lake. Decreased stormwater can also mean less nitrogen and phosphorus being carried into the Lake — and it is excessive amounts of these nutrients that feed algal blooms and non-native aquatic plants.
So, given this curious mix of negative and positive impacts, what does the drought mean for our long- term efforts to protect Lake Tahoe?
First, let's look at Tahoe's famous clear waters. While the drought may bring short-term clarity improvements, the major increase in clarity in recent years has resulted from the collaborative efforts of Tahoe's science community, agencies and stakeholders such as the League. Such collaborations have supported restoration of the wetlands that act as natural filters for the Lake, efforts to reduce the impacts from sanding roads in the winter, and better management of stormwater runoff. Especially during drought years, these efforts are critical to ensuring that we don't see a return to the days when lake clarity was receding.
Secondly, let's consider the invasives species threat. Since drought conditions are favorable for many aquatic invasive species, it is more vital than ever that we not let new species get a foothold or let established invasives spread. We must continue to implement prevention and control efforts, including the boat inspection program. Unfortunately, the sources of public funding that have supported our invasive species management have begun to dwindle.
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Because of complexities like these, we at the League to Save Lake Tahoe remain focused on the long-term priorities for the Lake. We continue to engage the public to address stormwater pollution through our volunteer programs. With other Tahoe leaders, we are seeking sustainable state and federal funding to manage aquatic invasive species. When faced with decisions about dredging boat channels or extending piers in attempts to chase the Lake's receding waters, we encourage public officials to take a longer perspective instead of making exceptions on protections for the Lake during drought years. The Lake has proved resilient through countless drought cycles. It's up to us to make decisions that build on that resiliency.
We hope this drought trend reverses soon, much as the one from my teens ended. Droughts like our current one certainly take a toll on Tahoe's economy. In the meantime, our community's collective efforts to protect the Lake — through stormwater management, invasive species control and restoration of wetlands — will ensure that we can Keep Tahoe Blue.
Darcie Goodman Collins is a native of South Lake Tahoe and serves as executive director for the League to Save Lake Tahoe. The League, also known by the slogan "Keep Tahoe Blue," is Tahoe's oldest and largest nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. The League is dedicated to community engagement and education, and collaborating to find solutions to Tahoe's environmental challenges. The League's main campaigns include combatting pollution, tackling invasive species, promoting restoration and protecting Tahoe's shore.
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