206-acre meadow acquired for large-scale restoration of Upper Truckee River watershed | TahoeDailyTribune.com

206-acre meadow acquired for large-scale restoration of Upper Truckee River watershed

Claire Cudahy
Johnson Meadow was acquired by the Tahoe Resource Conservation District in 2018.
Provided / Tahoe Resource Conservation District

The largest privately-owned section of the Upper Truckee River is now in public hands, paving the way for another restoration project on an altered watershed harming Lake Tahoe’s famed clarity.

This week the Tahoe Resource Conservation District announced the acquisition of Johnson Meadow, a 206-acre portion of a larger watershed that, in its original form, acted as a natural water filter for both the Upper Truckee River and Trout Creek.

Where water once slowly and circuitously flowed through a marsh, allowing nutrient-rich sediment to settle out before emptying into Lake Tahoe, there is now an altered river channel shooting directly into the lake.

Starting in the 1950s, developers dredged and filled hundreds of acres of the sensitive marsh to create a canal system and the residential community, the Tahoe Keys. The Lake Tahoe Airport also was erected on the former wetlands.

Though the development plans were eventually scaled back — there were proposals for a 14-story hotel, golf course and condos — the rerouting of the river and filling of the wetlands was devastating for the native wildlife and the lake’s clarity.

Since the late 1980s, environmental agencies like the California Tahoe Conservancy have been buying up parcels along the Upper Truckee River with the intent of stopping development and ultimately restoring the wetlands.

In 2001, the conservancy completed a 12-acre restoration project on the western edge of the marsh, kicking off what would become a multi-agency effort to restore the 9-miles of river and over 1,000 acres of surrounding wetlands.

Different restoration projects led by the conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, city of South Lake Tahoe and California State Parks are at various stages of completion along the river.

The Johnson Meadow is the final piece of that puzzle.

The purchase of the meadow for $8.315 million was made possible through a partnership between the district, conservancy, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Tahoe Fund and the former property owners.

“The Mosher family has a rich history in Lake Tahoe and for almost a century protected this land from development,” said Nicole Cartwright, executive director of the district.

“Really what the restoration will entail is stream bank erosion control and rebuilding the channels. The river right now is sort of a one direct shot into the lake. It will be re-channelized to turn and meander and have a much longer, wider path throughout the whole flood plain.”

Restoring the meadow will help reduce the amount of fine sediment flowing into Lake Tahoe and reducing its clarity.

New native grasses also will be introduced to create a habitat for birds and other wildlife. Boardwalks will be added to allow public access without impeding the water flow, but for the short-term, the district is considering a temporary bridge across the meadow to reconnect the Tahoe Sierra [formerly known as Sierra Tract] and Fourth Street neighborhoods.

Cartwright estimates the planning phase for the meadow’s restoration will take roughly three to five years to finalize, and implementation is roughly five to 10 years out. The district and its partners need to raise between $10-15 million in funding to restore the meadow.

At the same time, the conservancy is making strides on its restoration of a 500-acre portion of the watershed.

“From our perspective we view the restoration of the river as a restoration program where there are multiple projects up and down the river that are being coordinated as one effort,” said Scott Carroll, environmental planner at the conservancy. “The scope and scale of it is unparalleled from the rest of the basin.”

This portion of the Upper Truckee River restoration is still in the planning phase and will likely take another 10 years to complete.

“It’s a big deal to coordinate and collaborate at that scale and restore 9 miles of river,” added Carroll.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.