Guest View: Upper Truckee River needs attention from community
Decades of human alteration along the Upper Truckee River and throughout its watershed have left us with a poorly functioning river system that negatively impacts the health of Lake Tahoe. Intensive urban development and an extensive road network, loss of critical stream environment zones and wetlands, and straightening the river all have had detrimental effects on the river, the watershed and Lake Tahoe. Some of the more egregious insults to the river include dredging and filling one of the largest wetland areas in the Sierra to build Tahoe Keys and realigning the river to accommodate grazing, irrigation and the Lake Tahoe Airport before the days of environmental oversight. All these modifications have resulted in increased erosion; more urban runoff entering the river and lake; marginalized habitat for vegetation, fish and wildlife; and poor water quality.
We all know that Lake Tahoe is losing clarity – at a rate of a little less than 1 foot per year – but did you know that the Upper Truckee River delivers more than half of the clarity-reducing fine sediment from stream-channel erosion that enters Lake Tahoe? The Upper Truckee River Watershed bears that dubious distinction along with that of being the largest of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s 63 watersheds. It is clear that the Upper Truckee River urgently needs a little TLC to rectify past and current land-use practices.
Fortunately for the Upper Truckee River and Lake Tahoe, an intensive effort is under way to restore the river from its upper headwaters to where it enters the lake. Restoration projects are seeking to return the river to a more natural state by restoring the natural meanders in the river, re-establishing floodplains and replanting native vegetation. These measures have the potential to improve water quality by reducing erosion and allowing more nutrients and sediment to deposit onto the land before they enter the lake and cause it to lose clarity.
A debate is occurring in our community and throughout the state about how to best manage urban stormwater – the murky water that results from precipitation washing over sediment-laden roads, lawns and forests. “Pump and treat” plants and other engineered water-treatment facilities have been touted as a possible solution to our lake clarity woes. They may be a “tool in the toolbox,” but they are relatively untested and expensive. The restoration of river systems, wetland areas and other naturally occurring water-filtration areas can offer a more cost-effective and immediate method of improving water quality.
Restoration projects throughout the Upper Truckee River watershed are about more than water quality, however. These projects can provide benefits across a multitude of TRPA’s environmental thresholds, including improving fish, wildlife and vegetation habitat, and the scenic beauty of the area.
Public knowledge of ecosystem restoration projects and public participation in the environmental review process are critical elements in the success of many projects but sometimes are lacking or delayed. Many of these projects will release environmental documents, such as Environmental Impact Statements, for public review and comment within the next year, giving our community a voice in the future of the watershed. The Upper Truckee River Watershed Stewardship Group, a forum for environmental education and discussion of watershed issues, is committed to working with project planners and citizens to increase community participation in projects affecting the watershed.
The watershed group, in conjunction with local, state and federal agencies, and organizations, is sponsoring a public forum Wednesday evening at Lake Tahoe Community College focused on the Upper Truckee River Watershed. “A Walk Through the Watershed” is an open-house event and is a great way to learn about environmental conditions in the watershed, explore various restoration projects, learn the status of the Angora fire burn zone, learn how you can help your local environment by joining a citizen water-quality monitoring team, and get a picture of what’s happening in the Upper Truckee River watershed.
– Sarah Curtis is coordinator for the Upper Truckee River Watershed Stewardship Group.