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Microplastic clean up, research continues at Lake Tahoe

Microplastics are a widespread problem that are not only found in the ocean, but research is showing that microplastic are in freshwater lakes as well, including Lake Tahoe. While scientific research on microplastics in freshwater has been limited in the past, momentum is gaining.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are smaller than a grain of rice or 5 millimeters in length. The “rice-sized” microplastics are worrisome because the size makes them easily ingested. Some microplastic can only be seen through a microscope.

According to UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, over 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced across the world each year. This plastic enters the environment and breaks down into tiny pieces but never really disappears. Research shows that microplastics that leach chemicals have entered the food chain, and are showing up in soils and drinking water.

The California State Water Board recently released a standard definition to better understand the contaminant and its potential risks to public health and safety in response to Senate Bill 1422.

California attention on microplastics has been applauded by many including Madonna Dunbar, Executive Director of Tahoe Water Suppliers Association. Dunbar says that California is way ahead of the rest of the country for addressing the problem, “Even sensing a problem, we’re working to fix it.”

The board created standardized methods such as testing and reporting to monitor microplastics in drinking water, surface water, sediment and fish tissue which also was part of the bill.

“Plastic pollution is a challenge throughout our watersheds, from large plastics such as bottles, bags, and other refuse, to microscopic pieces that this definition attempts to better define,” Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the state water board said in a press release. “We must find ways to comprehensively address the problem, and the water board looks forward to guiding the discussion on how best to do so.”

In the summer of 2019, Katie Senft, a research associate from TERC, started sampling and researching microplastics in Lake Tahoe which was the first time microplastics had been studied at the lake. She took samples from Incline Beach and Hidden Beach.

While plastic trash can be seen with the naked eye, to research microplastics, the team scoops sand from the shoreline that is brought back to be examined under a microscope.

“The microplastics we’re finding at Lake Tahoe are most likely from improperly disposed trash,” Senft told the Tribune in an interview last year.

While the official definition of microplastics is in regards to California, Heather Segale, education and outreach director for TERC, hopes that it can bring more funding for microplastic research.

“It all comes down to funding,” she said.

Segale along with Take Care Tahoe is working on a Drink Tahoe Tap campaign to reduce single use plastic water bottles.

Raleys in Incline Village will have a shelf of reusable bottles and a refilling station to steer people away from buying plastic water bottles.

“Plastic never degrades, just breaks down into tiny pieces,” Segale said.

UC Davis TERC will be working on microplastic research over the next year. They have a Manta Trawl net being pulled across the surface of Lake Tahoe behind the UC Davis Research Vessel John LeConte.

The Manta Trawl collects sediment samples from the surface of the water and the bottom of the lake. They will also be collecting kokanee salmon and asian clams to examine under microscopes for microplastics.

“I wasn’t surprised when microplastics were discovered in Tahoe since I see so much trash underwater,” said Colin West, founder of Clean Up the Lake.

West planned a 72-mile underwater clean up of the lake this summer, but it was postponed to 2021 due to coronavirus. West has future cleanups planned to remove and study trash from the lake including GIS maps, GoPros, etc.

During underwater cleanups, they mark possible historical item locations. With the other objects found underwater they locate, catalog and discuss the objects.

After taking data, they try to recycle as much as they can before throwing things away.

“We see very obvious objects breaking down to microplastics,” said West. “But, the majority of microplastics you don’t see.”

Clean Up the Lake recently hosted a 30-Day plastic swap challenge to urge people to use plastic alternatives.

“It [plastic] is something so ingrained in our lifestyle, it takes a conscious effort to step away,” West said.

West explained that since the coronavirus pandemic, this single-use plastic problem has gotten significantly worse in the last four or five months.

“It comes down to making better choices on what you are buying,” said Sayde Easler, program services coordinator for Clean Up the Lake.

Research shows that microplastics are in the lake, but does that mean that they have entered Tahoe’s tap?

Dunbar, who applauds California’s efforts, says not yet.

“We are not radically concerned, but it is on our radar,” she said.

Tahoe’s water is already so clean that it is one of the few filtration exempt water sources in the nation. This means that the water doesn’t have to be heavily treated to clean.

Dunbar said that the microplastics entering the lake are from many sources including fiberglass particles from boating debris, structures near the lake and plastic water bottles.

While Dunbar said that microplastics have not contaminated the drinking water yet, we have to start fixing the problem before it does.

“Microplastics are an emerging topic in a lot of dialogue,” Dunbar said. “It is really important to address this problem.”

She encourages people to take the step to understand your local water and ask questions to your local water provider.

TERC created a microplastic that is on display at the Tahoe science center which is still temporarily closed. It was originally to be debuted on Earth Day, but was postponed due to coronavirus.


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