Above the rim: Ongoing winter storms lead to rapid rise for Lake Tahoe
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — California has been getting pounded with consistent winter storms for the past several weeks. With plenty more precipitation on the way, Lake Tahoe’s ski resorts aren’t the only spot in the basin reaping the benefits of the rapid snowfall.
Only 30 days ago, Lake Tahoe’s lake level was at 6,222.56 feet. About a month later, the lake is now at 6,224.02 feet, and still quickly rising. This rapid rise in lake level is credited to the ongoing winter storms, bringing Tahoe above its natural rim.
According to the U.S. Water Master’s Office, Lake Tahoe rang in the new year strong, receiving a 0.43-foot rise on Jan. 1 alone, ranking seventh overall in record for single-day lake level rise. When analyzing Tahoe’s low point just 30 days ago and comparing to current conditions, the influx of water is substantial.
“From the rise of the 6,222.56 feet to the measured level of 6,224.02 feet, this is a rise from the low point to the high of 1.46 feet,” said Chief Deputy Water Manager for the U.S. Water Master’s Office Dave Wathen. “This is the equivalent of approximately 177,138 acre-feet added to the lake.”
This rise in lake level provides for a more full Lake Tahoe for the seasons ahead, but analyzing the bigger picture, also brings growing success to what has more recently been a dry California and Nevada.
“We need water for recreation in Tahoe, but more importantly our partners downstream need water for drinking and agriculture use,” Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund, said. “The top six feet of Tahoe is a federal reservoir that feeds lots of agencies and businesses downstream.”
With Lake Tahoe’s lake level increase serving other nearby areas, the benefits are also big for this influx of precipitation for Tahoe’s overall environment.
“Higher water levels also mean cooler waters near the shoreline, which should reduce algal growth that we see typically in shallow, warmer waters,” Berry said.
While the precipitation is filling Lake Tahoe, these storms are ongoing, and there is a potential threat for flooding in nearby areas.
“These storms can cause flooding within the Tahoe Basin and dangerously all along the Truckee River, including downtown Reno,” Berry said. “We don’t have to worry too much about Tahoe itself flooding until it reaches 6,229 feet or higher.”
In 2017, the lake was filled to the maximum limit after years of ongoing drought. According to U.S. Geological Survey data, this is something that is possible again for 2023, which can bring potential threats to Tahoe’s landscape.
“If the lake goes much higher than 6,229 feet, it threatens the shoreline and creates erosion issues, this is something to watch for in the early summer months,” Berry said. “Flooding and rain also bring lots of sediment that is in the river and stream beds around the lake. We have 63 tributaries into Lake Tahoe, and they are likely all carrying fine sediment into the lake that will impact the lake’s clarity right now.”
Berry said that while the water is great for the forests that are dying due to drought and beetle infestation, this water also means underbrush will flourish in the summer months, increasing fire danger overall.
Given the tremendous amount of precipitation received over the last 30 days, it can be assumed that California and Nevada are expecting to be out of the ongoing drought period, however, that isn’t official as of yet.
“We are technically still in a drought,” Wathen said. “We will make the formal designation whether we are in a drought period in April, typically. It’s important to acknowledge that we still have a lot of winter to come. We’ve seen winters like this in the past, and even though we’re having a big month now, it can also shut off and go back to being dry. We’re in great shape now and Tahoe’s levels are up which is great, but it can always turn around quickly.”
While in the midst of the winter season and with seemingly no end to the stormy weather, there are proactive ways that Tahoe community members can better manage and prepare for the winter storms ahead to make for a successful lake in the seasons to come.
“The best thing we can do to prepare for big, wet storms from an environmental perspective is erosion control and stormwater management,” Berry said. “At the big scale, this means major watershed restoration projects, stream restoration projects and stormwater infrastructure. This is mostly funded from local, state, and federal budgets, so supporting water bonds at the state level, encouraging local government support of these projects, and writing to your congresspeople and senators is important.”
For more information and statistics on Lake Tahoe’s lake level increase, visit: https://www.usgs.gov/.
Correction: A photo caption in the story has been updated. A photo was taken of the dam in Tahoe City from Fanny Bridge.
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