Lake Tahoe’s clarity improves, scientists optimistic |

Lake Tahoe’s clarity improves, scientists optimistic

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Results are in: A white dinner plate could be seen 78 feet down, on average, in Lake Tahoe in 2002.

That’s the clearest the lake has been since 1992, and 14 feet clearer than it was in 1996. The UC Davis Tahoe Research Group was cautiously optimistic about its 2001 data, which showed clarity improved a little less than 6 feet. This time, researchers are more enthusiastic.

“These are encouraging results and we hope they indicate the beginning of the lake’s recovery,” said Charles Goldman, founder and director of the research group. “However, 10 years is a short time and it is too early to say if the recent improvements will continue.”

Goldman cautioned that 2001 and 2002 were both dry years and therefore could have reduced the amount of runoff entering the lake, which is believed to affect lake clarity.

The clarity measurements are good news, as is data that shows a decrease in the growth of algae in the lake, said Juan Palma, executive director at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which leads environmental projects at the Lake Tahoe Basin.

“We’re starting to see a decline in how much algae is growing out there,” Palma said. “If you can attack both sediment and algae, obviously we’re going to have better clarity and be able to see deeper into the lake.”

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Getting erosion control projects on the ground since the Environmental Improvement Program was created in 1997 to save lake clarity has been a top priority for the TRPA. The environmental protections, such as the water retention ponds sprouting around the basin, may also be reducing the amount of chemicals that get in the lake and breed the growth of algae.

Larry Benoit, water quality program manager at the TRPA, said algae growth dropped off dramatically between 2001 and 2002.

“It’s been flat from about 1998, then it dropped off considerably,” Benoit said. “The recent data is going in the right direction. Ideally, the more years we see a pattern, the more confident we will be.”

The executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe said the results are exciting, but may be a mirage.

“This is very encouraging news, but it’s still too early to know if this is a meaningful trend,” said Rochelle Nason. “We hope this will encourage policy makers to redouble their efforts to restore Lake Tahoe’s watershed.”

Such efforts include land conservation, limits on development and restoration of damaged natural environments.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at