Tahoe Conservancy gaining ground on marsh restoration project
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The California Tahoe Conservancy is nearing completion of the second stage of the Upper Truckee Marsh Restoration Project, which is just a piece of the plan they’ve been working the last 20 years on to restore the marsh to its former glory.
An aerial photo of the marsh from the 1940s shows a very different marsh than the one that’s there today. The Upper Truckee River split into multiple channels and lagoons and the water flowed through the 1,600 acres of marsh before entering Lake Tahoe.
The lush, green marsh provided habitat for many creatures, including song birds. It also helped with water quality, as it acted as a giant filter for water entering Lake Tahoe.
“As the water would come down through here, it would move through the vegetation and it would stop and slow down and drop a lot of sediment, a lot of nutrients would be picked up,” said Stuart Roll, senior environmental scientist for CTC.
Loggers and ranchers up-river manipulated the river to straighten it out, so water flowed through faster. In the 1960’s, the Lake Tahoe Golf Course was built, further changing the shape of the river.
Then, when the Tahoe Keys were built, they destroyed the lagoon and bifurcated the marsh, cutting it down to about 500 acres, less than half of its original size.
“As part of the Tahoe Keys development, the channel was channelized into this straight ditch. What that did was it helped get the water around the Keys and get the water out but it had quite a few negative impacts,” Roll said. “A lot of the water now stays in the channel, it doesn’t spread out over the marsh, and it’s deep so it’s dried out the marsh.”
An aerial photo from 1969 shows a much different marsh, one that’s baron and has no meandering water channels.
The area of the marsh directly east of the Keys was also slated to become developed, so it was filled with dirt and according to Roll, there was also talk of a golf course on the marsh.
In the late 80’s, a lawsuit prevented the development from moving forward and the Conservancy purchased some of that land.
“That was a great opportunity because a lot of the land had been filled for development but also presented an opportunity to bring back the wetlands,” Roll said.
Thus began the CTC’s mission to restore the marsh.
While the land was acquired in the 1980’s, work didn’t begin until the early 2000’s. They started with pulling 8,000 truck loads of misplaced dirt out of the marsh, which was then used for various road construction projects around the area.
There were very few native plants left in the area, so they brought in plants that were once native there, such as willow, to plant.
“Willow is a restorer’s best friend. It’s very fast growing, I can basically go cut a willow branch down and throw it on the ground, if it gets a little bit of water, it’ll just grow,” said Scott Carroll, senior environmental planner for CTC.
The willow only takes about three to five years to reach its full height, so it wasn’t too long until that part of the marsh looked like an actual marsh.
Carroll said he can now use that area as an example of what the current project will look like in a few years.
Even since completing just that first stage, there have been ecological benefits, including water and soil quality. One benefit that both Roll and Carroll were excited about was the return of wildlife, especially the Willow Flycatcher, an endangered songbird.
Stage 1 was followed by 15 years of planning for the start of Stage 2, which began in 2022.
There are two major project areas included in two Stage 2, one of which is just east of the Tahoe Keys.
There was an area the Tahoe Keys had filled in with dirt for further development.
The marina had once built a sailing lagoon, which was about three acres, that became filled with aquatic invasive species. They disconnected that lagoon from the marina and filled in with the dirt taken from the area once slated for development.
When filling the lagoon, they used a specific fill method that dumped the dirt directly down onto the invasive weeds. This choked them out and prevented them from shifting sideways.
There were also several large trees on the dirt lot they had to cut down. They used the large part of the trunks and roots as barriers in a different project area of the marsh and chipped the rest to lay down where the new plants would be planted next to the Keys.
“What we tried to do was keep everything internal to the project site,” Carroll said.
In 2021, they planted about half the plants, many of which were cut from the previous project area.
In the new planting area, they created several different plains of different elevations to simulate the historic dune environment.
Low areas near water will have different vegetation than higher drier areas which is a benefit because different plants do serve different purposes.
The plants were planted in rows, similar to crops, which Carroll said he has heard concerns about from people who frequently walk the path in the marsh. However, because of the way those plants grow out, they will eventually all connect and it won’t resemble crops rows anymore.
This summer, they have about 30,000 more plants to plant. While the drought has been devastating to the basin, it has worked in CTC’s favor while working on this area.
They originally had costly plans to divert water away from the area while the plants were planted and became established, which they didn’t end up needing to do.
There is one area of the channel where they built an earthen berm. In August, after the Willow Flycatcher has left the area, they will take out the berm and allow the new area to flood.
Part of that area includes a popular walking path that accesses the lake. Prior to Stage 2 starting, the path was an out-and-back that wasn’t wheelchair or stroller accessible.
For Roll, allowing people to still recreate in the marsh is important. Once the planting is done, they will be rebuilding the path. It will now be a full lap and will be ADA accessible.
CTC has been working with the Washoe Tribe throughout the project, and the Tribe is going to help CTC develop educational signs to be placed around the path.
The Tribe was also present during planning stages and during excavation of the channels. Carroll hopes the Tribe will be able to use the native plants for their traditional medicinal and cultural purposes.
Land stewards will also be working full-time during the summer to educate users about the project and the importance of keeping dogs and people on the path.
The second part of Stage 2 includes creating new water channels further east into the marsh.
They dug new channels and lined them with the trees taken from the other project area. They are also putting more water flow into Trout Creek.
“We’re just getting water to those channels then we’ll let mother nature dictate… this type of wetland is very rare and it’s very dynamic, the river changes a lot. That’s a good thing for habitat, wildlife and marsh quality and that’s what we’re trying to promote,” Carroll said.
The new channels connect to historic channels.
“Before the project, the middle marsh would only get water during really large rain and snow events,” Roll said.
He added that with the new channels, the area can receive water during a traditional snow melt event.
Through both of these project areas, the Conservancy will be creating 12 acres of new wetland.
Roll said there will be ecological benefits of rewetting the marsh, including water quality improvements and creating more habitat.
“There’s also climate benefits that are important. Understanding that we’re going to have longer droughts, more extreme precipitation events, a lot of our restoration is really focused on that to make sure this area can be wetter during longer droughts,” Roll said. “We’re also doing greenhouse gas sequestration down here because well-functioning meadows actually sequester a lot of greenhouse gasses, similar to a rainforest, while an impaired one can actually be a source of greenhouse gasses.”
These two components are just a piece of restoration of the whole nine miles of the Upper Truckee River. Work is soon slated to begin at Lake Tahoe Golf Course to restore parts of that river.
While the Conservancy isn’t part of that project, all the projects work in tandem to restore the area. The CTC has worked with the city of South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Resource Conservation District, the Forest Service and California State Parks and they’ve received funding from 13 different sources, including five different grants.
However, Carroll said one of the benefits of these types of projects is that once the area is established, it should require little to no maintenance.
“We have an array of objectives but the way we look at it is we’re starting under this overall umbrella of, ‘we want to restore the ecosystem.’ Our strategy is trying to put mother nature in its best position to succeed without us having to continue to come out here and maintain it,” Carroll said. “This is essentially free once it’s built.”
To learn more about the project, visit https://tahoe.ca.gov/upper-truckee-marsh.
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