Donner Lake escapes the scrutiny Tahoe gets
August 7, 2008
TRUCKEE – It’s just a fact of life: Donner Lake plays second fiddle to Lake Tahoe.
“At the watershed council, we like to say Donner Lake is in the glory shadow of Lake Tahoe,” said Lisa Wallace, executive director of the Truckee River Watershed Council. “If it was further away from Tahoe, I think it would be really famous.”
But the attention deficit isn’t just in the minds of tourists – it’s also in the amount of scientific scrutiny the body of water receives. Whereas Lake Tahoe has its own clarity standards, goals and even its own governing entity (the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, or TRPA), Donner Lake doesn’t have its own standards or objectives. There is no DRPA.
Instead, the lake is lumped into Truckee River watershed standards from the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Lauri Kemper, supervising engineer with the board.
In fact, Kemper said, Lahontan has no monitoring on Donner Lake compared with the collaborative work on Lake Tahoe of the University of California, Davis, Lahontan and the TRPA.
“Lake Tahoe gets more attention because it is federally designated an Outstanding National Water Resource for its extraordinary clarity, purity and unique situation,” Kemper said. “But Donner is an important part of the watershed.”
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Tim Tweedie, a 25-year resident of Donner Lake, has his own observations of the lake over the years.
“I am just concerned with the water quality,” said Tweedie, who has collected bags of litter from the lake. “When I dive in the water, the distance I can see is less each year.”
Tweedie said that although fees are being collected and money spent attempting to catch sediment before it reaches Donner Lake, with no baseline water quality data to measure improvements or setbacks, no one knows what good these efforts are doing.
One type of litter Tweedie has collected from the lake recently has been fireworks debris.
“I love (the fireworks), but is it good for the lake?” Tweedie said.
Steve Randall, general manager of the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District, said the company that runs the annual fireworks show over West End Beach has to clean up after itself. District workers also go back the next day to check, Randall said, and any fireworks that are missed are biodegradable.
Kemper said the Water Quality Control Board studied the effects of fireworks in Lake Tahoe and found that trash is a bigger issue than any chemicals the fireworks might contain.
Wallace questioned whether trash is the biggest problem.
“Between stormwater runoff, erosion and trash, if we were to rank these things, would we focus on litter first? We would want to start at the highest impacts,” Wallace said.
The watershed council, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Truckee Donner Land Trust, has plans under way to restore Negro Canyon, which Wallace said is feeding tons of sediment into Donner Lake through Gregory Creek.
“We’ll be launching that project in the next three or four weeks,” Wallace said.
Billy Mack Canyon to the west also carries sediment into the lake, drawing on sand used on Interstate 80 that ends up in Summit and Frog creeks, she said.
“There is literally 6 to 8 feet of sand in the canyon in some places,” she said.
Wallace said Caltrans’ current project on I-80 includes the most extensive stormwater runoff controls for the stretch of freeway since its construction, designed to catch the sand and salt washing off the road.
Closer to the lake, town of Truckee roadwork on Donner Pass Road will also add runoff controls and sediment-catching basins, further reducing what reaches the lake.
All the projects are opportunistic, Wallace said, and Donner Lake still is in need of a comprehensive plan to study, monitor and improve water quality.
“If enough people in the community decide they want to do that it could happen through the town, the watershed council, or some kind of partnership,” Wallace said.