Invisible bridge leads to Siberia
Forest burned around Lake Tahoe the first week of July, the same week a forest fire burned alongside Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia.
The two lakes have much in common: fire danger, trillions of gallons of freshwater and many people who want to share knowledge in hopes of preserving their beauty.
The Tahoe-Baikal Institute, based at South Lake Tahoe and formed in 1990, is a 10-week environmental exchange program that has created an invisible bridge between two lakes.
On Wednesday, the group of students participating in the program took a boat ride out of Ski Run Marina, docking in waters about a mile out from Stateline. An interpreter translated English into Russian as the history of Lake Tahoe, and its challenges, were related.
They watched as a Secchi Disc, a white plate used to measure lake clarity, was lowered 65 feet until it disappeared. Up at the front of the boat, Alexey Kolodkin, 24, of Irkutsk, Russia, a biochemist, stood with Eitan Trabin, 26, of Berkeley, Calif., a philosophy major, and spoke about Tahoe and how it differs from Baikal.
“(Baikal) is more emerald,” Kolodkin said. “Also it’s very, very clear. Here is beautiful, but Baikal is like a sea.”
Baikal is a slender lake fed by 336 rivers. It’s 395 miles long and is so deep, more than 5,700 at its deepest, that it contains one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water.
Unlike Tahoe, the edge of Baikal is home for industry, such as the Baikal Pulp and Paper Plant. It also absorbs sewage, where at Tahoe all treated sewage water is pumped out of Lake Tahoe Basin.
Kolodkin and Trabin said the water of Baikal is able to remain incredibly clear despite pollution. The reason: it mixes its waters every two years with the help of oxygen vents in the bottom of the lake.
“You get an amazing feeling,” Trabin said. “People around Baikal love Baikal. It’s an important part of their life. It’s part of their identity. You’re in Siberia with all its forest and then you’ve just got this jewel in the middle of it.”
Anthony Brunello, executive director at the institute, oozes enthusiasm when he talks about the Tahoe-Baikal. His large brown eyes open wide when he talks about the future of the program.
“Our alumni network is 210 strong spread all across the world,” Brunello said. “People often come back to help both communities and take on research projects directly related to the program.”
The program plans to expand its operations with an office at Incline and Irkutsk, Russia.
“We’re taking the next step,” said Brunello, who participated in the program in 1993 and is a sixth generation native of Lake Tahoe. “We’re going to focus more on three areas: economic development, watershed protection and cultural values.”
The institute plans to create more student exchanges, conduct long-term research and focus efforts to build a trail around Baikal, like the Tahoe Rim Trail to encourage tourism and the economy at Baikal.
This October, the institute will invite 25 people from central Asia and eastern Europe to share information about watershed planning. The event will be sponsored by the World Bank, an organization based at Washington D.C.
“We want to take the lessons learned from Lake Tahoe and spread them internationally,” Brunello said.
On average, the institute draws about 80 applications and accepts about 16. This year’s participants include seven people from Russia, two students from Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan and seven U.S. residents.
The institute is free to international students and costs about $1,700 for U.S. residents. In the future, with help from Americorps, tuition for residents may be reduced to zero, Brunello said.
This year’s batch of students left Baikal for Tahoe about two weeks ago. Now they’re camping at Fallen Leaf Lake and will be here until late August.
The Tahoe-Baikal Institute has an annual budget of $200,000. It is funded with grant money and private donations. The California Tahoe Conservancy, California Conservation Corps and the U.S. Forest Service support the institute providing transportation and housing when needed.
Upcoming events at Tahoe-Baikal
Aug. 6: Exchange participants introduced at City Council Chambers at 6 p.m.
Aug. 9: Genghis Blues – screening of a documentary at Lake of the Sky Amphitheater, Taylor Creek Visitor Center at 8 p.m.
Aug. 19: Exchange participants present their work at Lahontan at 9 a.m.
Aug. 20-21: Exchange participants work with forestry crews from the California Tahoe Conservancy
— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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