Rubicon not to blame for declining clarity |

Rubicon not to blame for declining clarity

Twenty-two miles is a long and rough ride when you’re grinding along in “granny” gear.

But for the thousands of Jeepers who annually traverse the Sierra crest by way of the Rubicon Trail, speed isn’t the point.

“It provides both the machine challenge and the outdoor enjoyment,” said Jim Bramham, who has traveled the route in his tricked out Jeep CJ-5 no fewer than 100 times. “It has incredible natural draw.”

That eclectic charm of natural beauty and machine-made challenge makes the Rubicon, which links Loon Lake to Lake Tahoe’s west shore, one of the most sought-after four-wheel-drive routes in the world. Its popularity presents the greatest challenge, not to four-wheelers, but to Lake Tahoe’s land managers who collectively have committed almost $1 billion to stop erosion in the basin.

Studies have declared fine sediments as Lake Tahoe’s most menacing enemy, threatening its famed clarity which has been declining by more than 1 foot each year for the last 30 years.

Four-wheeling is often scrutinized, sometimes unjustly so, for quickening the erosion process, said Bramham, a past president of the California Association of 4WD Clubs.

“It has been questioned a number of times as to its contribution to the runoff and the clarity of Lake Tahoe,” Bramham added. “But it’s difficult to break granite and most of the trail is exactly that. But in areas where we have problems, we make sure that we’ve gone in and done extensive rerouting trying to get the route out of the sensitive riparian zones.”

Most of the trail, the portion that rides over durable bedrock, drains into the Rubicon Basin and away from Tahoe’s sensitive waters. On the Tahoe side of the crest, stormwater from about six miles of the trail pours into McKinney Creek and to Lake Tahoe’s west shore.

Land managers, with the help of area four-wheel-drive clubs that are interested in preserving their access rights, are taking measures to slow erosion on those six miles.

Placer County, which has jurisdiction for the trail, installed culverts and water diversion ditches in 1986 and paved the two miles closest to Tahoe in 1993.

“We’ve been out there this week, cleaning ditches and removing sediments from the culverts,” said Placer County road maintenance manager Kevin Taber. “That’s our big push for this year.”

Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, California’s regulatory agency on water quality, inspected those efforts Tuesday.

The inspection revealed that more work will have to be done on the top portion of the trail, as it nears the crest of the Sierra. The two miles of pavement remain in good shape.

Lauri Kemper, Lahontan’s chief of the Lake Tahoe watershed, called the paving “the most significant water quality accomplishment in the Tahoe Basin in the last 15 years.”

The county’s impetus to pave the road came from a cease and desist order issued by Lahontan in 1993.

“We suggested that they close the road and that’s when they decided to pave it,” Kemper said. “The improvements were drastic and immediate.”

Paving that portion of the road didn’t diminish the trail’s attraction, Bramham said.

Area four-wheel-drive clubs have been working more than 30 years to stop erosion in that area and the blacktop makes their improvements permanent.

“Our commitment is to keep up the work,” Bramham said. “Most of the four-wheel-drive trails have been maintained for passage but the Rubicon has really needed some work that steps beyond that and makes sure we’re protecting the watersheds involved and we’ve been proactive on that for at least 15 years.”

Much of the work in the area is funded through California’s green sticker program, a licensing fee for off-highway vehicles that collects about $35 million each year for projects across the state.

Erosion work done in the Tahoe Basin drainage counts for improvements outlined in the Environmental Improvement Program, a plan to make $908 million of environmental improvements on all sides of the basin by 2007, when scientists believe damages to Lake Tahoe’s clarity will become irreversible.

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