Lake Tahoe’s shallows will now receive similar scientific attention to the lake’s clear blue depths.
On Thursday, scientists from the Desert Research Institute launched the agency’s research boat that will help them collect data about the near shore environments.
“This will give us an idea of what areas of the lake are threatened, what are the hot spots,” DRI staff scientist Brian Fitzgerald said as he piloted the craft near Sand Harbor.
With a recent infusion of funding, researchers will now be able to regularly take the boat out for up to three years. The jet-powered craft, which can travel in shallower water than a traditionally propelled watercraft, is equipped to collect continuous data as it moves along the lakeshore.
“Historically, research has been happening in the middle of the lake,” said Angela Stevens, a research assistant with DRI and graduate student at University and Nevada Reno. “We would like to characterize the water quality, specifically the water clarity, near shore.”
Information on the water’s turbidity, translucidity and chlorophyll content are registered on an onboard computer every two seconds while the boat is in operation. All of these are optical properties of the water, which determine clarity.
“Clarity is one major component of water quality,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s an important part of what’s missing from the other research that’s been going on.”
Though DRI has been using the boat since 2001, it has been sporadic. Without a continuous data, it’s hard to understand the changes in the water quality, Fitzgerald said.
“If we can go out regularly, we can assess how the water clarity changes over time,” Stevens said. “We could have that data and we could begin to build a continuous data set.”
The relation of near-shore water quality to the lake’s overall clarity is little understood. But scientists have established that the majority of clarity-reducing pollutants that enter Lake Tahoe pass through this zone.
“The near shore is where it happens,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s where the interactions are, where the sediment is coming in.”
The Caesers Foundation awarded Stevens a nearly $50,000 fellowship in December to fund the research. DRI will match the amount. The money is expected to fund monthly excursions on the boat for up to three years.
The research could have major impacts on thresholds for pollutants entering the lake, Fitzgerald said. He hopes to identify some of the trouble areas that are contributing to the clarity’s degradation. Stevens agreed, adding that ultimately that’s what it’s about— the quality and clarity of water in Lake Tahoe
“That’s why people come here, because it’s so clear,” Stevens said. “And we want to keep it that way.”