After storms, smaller habitat is left for endangered plant
About 100 feet of habitat for a rare, tiny plant unique to Tahoe are gone after areas of beach east of the Tahoe Keys washed away during the New Year’s storm.
The Tahoe yellow cress only grows on the shores of Lake Tahoe. A relative of the mustard plant with small yellow flowers, it was identified for the first time in 1941.
Eleven experimental plots with 300 plants were inundated by rising lake level and a collapsed sand dune which allowed waters to flow into Barton Meadow after a series of snowstorms and rainstorms pummeled the Tahoe area.
But that’s not a bad thing, said Rick Robinson, conservation program manager for the California Tahoe Conservancy.
The yellow cress thrives off of natural beach disturbances, he said. Floods, wind and changing lake level help spread its seeds, which can survive floating on lake Tahoe as long as five years.
“The dynamic of beach change has always been there, and Tahoe yellow cress is adapted to it,” Robinson said. He is in charge of the conservancy efforts to protect the species.
“The plant is pretty hardy. Look at the environment it lives in: high elevation, and beaches that are actively changing all the time, both through wind and wave action. And sand is a harsh environment to grow in because it’s relatively dry.”
What’s not good for the yellow cress is pedestrians who trample it or beach-cleaning machines which uproot it, he said.
The lake is a foot higher now than a month ago and has covered large areas that were dry during the drought that lasted into 2005.
Tahoe yellow cress, called TYC by those who work closely with it, was listed as endangered by California in 1982, and is a candidate for federal listing as an endangered species. It is listed as critically endangered in Nevada.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has also identified it as a significant plant that needs protection. Ironically, beach recreation is also protected under TRPA’s compact.
The yellow cress listings require all land managers who govern any Lake Tahoe beach responsible for helping protect it. Those agencies include the U.S. Forest Service, California and Nevada state parks, California State Lands Commission and the conservancy.
In 2000, a study showed yellow cress occupied only 27 percent of its historical habitat.
Extensive rehabilitation efforts got under way about 1991, said Robinson, with State Lands taking the lead. The conservancy planted at Barton Beach, California State Parks has planted it on beaches in Emerald Bay and the Forest Service has planted it at Taylor, Baldwin and Nevada Beach. Nevada Sate Parks has planted it at Sand Harbor.
“This is all part of an integrated planning effort between all the agencies to try to get this plant out of jeopardy,” Robinson said.
Barton Beach stretches about 1,200 feet from the Upper Truckee River’s outlet into Lake Tahoe to the edge of the Al Tahoe subdivision. About 2/3 of that is protected and fenced off for the yellow cress. The same area breached nine years ago during the 1997 flood, and had filled in with a small sand dune.
“When the lake receded back to the low elevation, it recolonized,” said Steve Goldman with the Conservancy. “It comes and it goes , it doesn’t all die.”
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