Next cabinet forum today |

Next cabinet forum today

Patrick McCartney

The U.S. Department of the Interior is the parent body of two agencies active in the Tahoe Basin.

One helps monitor the region’s water quality, and the other is a major player in land trades aimed at expanding public ownership in the Tahoe Basin.

Most people know the U.S. Geological Survey for its meticulous topographical maps, but its mission is much broader, according to Elinor Handman, a hydrologist in the USGS Nevada District office in Carson City.

“Our mission is measuring and finding natural resources,” Handman said. “But we interpret the data too; we just don’t collect data. We supply the scientific understanding to understand and mitigate natural hazards and the environmental damage caused by human activity.”

In the Tahoe Basin, the USGS is a major part of the Lake Tahoe Interagency Monitoring Program.

By maintaining 32 stream-flow monitoring stations, the agency tracks season runoff and forecasts stream rises during floods. Some of the data is collected automatically, and fed by satellite into a real-time monitoring program on the Internet.

The agency also takes water-quality measurements at the sites, estimating the amount of algae nutrients that flow into Lake Tahoe.

“The (nutrient) loads vary – they are lowest in drought years and highest in years of unusually high precipitation,” said Carol Boughton, a hydrologist who summarized the results of the monitoring program. “Spring runoff produces the largest loads, and storms also contribute sizable amounts.”

The monitoring program has shown that the Upper Truckee River is the largest carrier of sediment and nutrients into Lake Tahoe, Hangman said. And the network of stations also provides evidence that the basin’s west side is wetter than the lake’s east side.

“The west side has much higher concentrations of sediment, nutrients and water. It gets more moisture,” Handman said. “Logan Home Creek on the east side has the smallest runoff.”

The USGS also monitors groundwater quality in the Tahoe Basin, and has become a small but important player in the continuing monitoring of slope stability in the American River canyon, where landslides buried U.S. Highway 50 twice last winter.

While the USGS is fairly active in the Tahoe Basin, two other interior department agencies play a lesser role in the basin.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviews plans in the basin that could affect fish and wildlife, while the Bureau of Land Management is a key player in land exchanges that could result in the acquisition of the historic Whittell Estate on Lake Tahoe’s East Shore.

In the past several years, the federal agency has swapped undeveloped land in Clark County for environmentally sensitive land elsewhere in Nevada.

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