River will take a turn for the better
About 14 miles long and meandering down the mountains on South Shore, the Upper Truckee River is by far the largest tributary of Lake Tahoe.
Trout Creek runs into the Upper Truckee River just before it hits the lake, and together they are responsible for about 30 percent of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s watershed.
There is a problem with the Upper Truckee River, however. Because of past development, the lower 2,000 feet of the meandering river have essentially been straightened.
“The way the river is configured now it’s basically a pipeline of sediment into the lake,” said Steve Goldman of the California Tahoe Conservancy.
That is why the Conservancy, a California agency that buys and preserves environmentally sensitive parcels in the basin, purchased the 200 acres surrounding the disturbed river in 1988. After years of planning – completing hydrogeological, vegetation, traffic and wildlife studies – the Conservancy soon will start work on the Upper Truckee River and Wetland Restoration Project.
“This is a very important project in the basin. This is the remnant of what was the largest wetland at Lake Tahoe. This is probably the biggest opportunity to restore one contiguous wetland – which happens to be at the mouth of the largest tributary,” Goldman said.
The cost of the parcel was $4.3 million, one of the Conservancy’s most pricey and critical purchases to date.
Goldman, an erosion control and stream restoration specialist, said officials believe that the river’s channel was altered there as early as the 1800s to allow for agricultural activities, such as dairy farming, in the meadow.
The largest change came later, however, with the construction of the Tahoe Keys. Developers filled in much of the Truckee Marsh. From 1958 to 1962, the river went from meandering to straight.
The Upper Truckee River flows about 200 to 300 cubic feet per second; the current channel near the Tahoe Keys provides a capacity for 1,000 cubic feet per second. While the river may look full, Goldman said, that is not the case. The lake backs up into the channel. A river such as the Upper Truckee should naturally overfill its banks every few years, allowing it to deposit sediment in the nearby meadows.
With the current channel, that doesn’t happen. Mother Nature has no way to stop sediment and nutrients – which are largely blamed for the decline in Lake Tahoe’s clarity – in the last 2,000 feet of the river.
The Conservancy’s long-term plans include rechanneling parts of the river; taking fish habitat restoration, re-vegetation and bank stabilization measures; and building trails, parking areas and other public access improvements.
The soon-to-be-started work will include removing fill and restoring Parcel 4 – a 36-acre piece of land that is mostly sand. Funded by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board at a price of $699,000, the initial phase of the project is scheduled to begin in 2000.
This summer, the Conservancy plans to start a small nursery at the 36-acre site. The plants will be used for the work next year and restoration on other Conservancy parcels. The nursery will be a demonstration garden of sorts, with signs explaining the project.
“A big reason for having a nursery here is to begin to show the public what we’re planning for the site,” Goldman said.
Keeping the public involved is important to the Conservancy, Goldman said. This week and next week, public meetings are scheduled to provide and obtain information about the project. The Conservancy wants public comments and concerns before officials are deep into the planning stages, when it would be difficult to make a change.
“Our project will have an impact on the whole meadow essentially,” he said.
It will have an impact on more than that – like all of Lake Tahoe. With the lake losing more than a foot of clarity a year, restoring the wetlands is considered an important part of the basin’s Environmental Improvement Program.
“It’s probably the most critical piece (of land the Conservancy has purchased) in terms of impact on Lake Tahoe. It has more than a mile of the largest tributary and a part of the largest wetland,” Goldman said. “This is a great opportunity to restore a disturbed wetlands in the Tahoe Basin.”
What: First public meeting
When: Thursday, 7 to 9 p.m.
Where: Tahoe Valley Elementary School staff room, 943 Tahoe Island Drive
What: Second public meeting
When: May 24, 4:30 p.m.
Where: Recreation Complex, 1180 Rufus Allen Blvd.
Information: (530) 542-5560, ext. 17
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