Environmental concerns come with Showers Fire | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Environmental concerns come with Showers Fire

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Officials are concerned about the Showers fire causing three things: erosion, increased loading of nutrients and sediments into the Upper Truckee River, and impact on Lahontan cutthroat trout, a threatened species of fish, that inhabits the river.

In one area, the fire burned within 50 yards of the eastern edge of the Upper Truckee River, the largest tributary to Lake Tahoe. Preservation of the banks of the river and vegetation around it is a priority because they act as valuable filters for sediments and nutrients heading for the lake. Scientists say those materials are causing the lake to lose its clarity.

“In the Lake Tahoe area, we’re concerned about any water system, but we’re especially concerned because of the Lahontan cutthroat trout,” said Maribeth Gustafson, U.S. Forest Service supervisor who manages Lake Tahoe Basin.

Any fire water, or future runoff from the burned land, that reaches the river could harm the fish, said Rex Norman, Forest Service public affairs officer.

Because the area burned by the fire is so sensitive, Gustafson and fire officials are issuing a directive to firefighters to be as careful as possible.

“They’ve been asked to go light on the land,” said Kirk Forsdick, fire information officer. “We are not going to bring in any ‘dozers. We’re probably not going to be using any retardant — only water and foam.

Gustafson said Tuesday she didn’t yet know how much of the stream environment zone of the Upper Truckee had been affected by the fire. Assessment of damage will be by specialists during the next few days.

The fire’s impact on the natural environment will depend on how hot it burned. Gustafson said it burned in moderate to high intensity but sections of the land are wet and some of the stream areas may have survived the fire.

One of 63 tributaries to the lake, the Upper Truckee has the largest watershed at Lake Tahoe Basin, according to Larry Benoit, water quality specialist at Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

“It’s not too much different from the Gondola Fire in a way,” Benoit said. “Both (fire areas) have tributaries to Lake Tahoe that may be affected by any increase in nutrients from material that’s been burned.

“If the area I’m looking at is accurate, we will be looking to protect the downside, anything that flows toward the Upper Truckee.”

Benoit said a ridge runs along the east side of the river that may provide some protection. A U.S. Geological Survey monitoring station that exists on the Upper Truckee below the fire will help scientists figure out if damage does occur.

“It’s an active site with long-term data so we’ll be able to make any comparison on how water quality would change,” Benoit said.

Firefighters carved out a line around the fire, which spread from near Elbert Lake, on Forest Service land about eight miles south of Lake Tahoe Airport, northeast to the edge of State Route 89 at Luther Pass. The fire line runs northeast from the Upper Truckee, north of Dardanelles Lake, northwest of Big Meadow and southeast of 89.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com

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