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Study goes beneath lake

While researchers have historically concentrated on what’s going on in the water below Lake Tahoe’s surface, some officials want to know more about what’s going on in the water beneath the basin’s soil.

A panel of scientists compiling research on all of Tahoe’s ecosystem has found there is a gaping hole in data about Tahoe’s groundwater.

To those concerned about MTBE contamination at South Shore, that news is unfortunate – but not a surprise.



“It’s not surprising at all,” said Rick Hydrick, manager of water operations at the South Tahoe Public Utility District. “To protect the district’s interests and because we have a strong vested interest in groundwater quality, we are probably doing research that should be done by others.

“We’re trying to understand our groundwater dynamics,” Hydrick added. “There’s certainly been a lot of attention paid to surface water and surface water quality. I’m glad they’ve done that, but it hasn’t been done to the same extent for groundwater.”




Groundwater, potentially carrying nutrients or contaminants, eventually discharges into the lake.

The Working Draft of the Lake Tahoe Watershed Assessment, an 800-page-plus document recently made public, estimates about 15 percent of the nitrogen and 9 percent of the phosphorous loading in Lake Tahoe comes from the groundwater.

Besides that, however, there’s very little known about groundwater.

The Watershed Assessment is an attempt to compile all the research that has gone on at Lake Tahoe into one document. Dennis Murphy, a University of Nevada, Reno, researcher and the scientific team leader of the assessment, described the groundwater data as a “big black box” in the research at Tahoe. The assessment recommends more research.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board is responsible for preserving the quality of the basin’s groundwater. Lahontan’s data, too, is lacking in substantive information.

“We know the groundwater is a dynamic system. It changes with the season, when the snow melts, but there isn’t an overall, holistic knowledge of the groundwater in the Tahoe Basin,” said Chuck Curtis of Lahontan. “We have information where we might have monitoring wells or where the South Tahoe Public Utility District may have information. But it’s fragmented; it’s kind of peppered throughout the basin, especially here in South Shore.”

STPUD four years ago hired consultants to begin an aquifer study to look at the groundwater for most of South Shore. That study is nearly complete, and a component of it will include a groundwater model of most of STPUD’s jurisdiction.

Hydrick described the model as a “Picasso painting.” As more information is made available in upcoming years, more data could be incorporated into it.

“Every year it will be more and more like a photograph,” Hydrick said. “It’s going to be 10 to 20 years to get a good picture of it.”

The district started the study about two years before its problems with MTBE materialized. Now that numerous contaminant plumes litter South Shore and more than a third of STPUD’s wells are closed, there’s even more need for the model.

Curtis said Lahontan officials would like such a model for the entire basin.

“The district would actually like to see the (U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein-introduced) Lake Tahoe Restoration Act include a hefty chunk of funds for groundwater research and management,” Hydrick said.


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