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Tahoe Keys turns 40

The Tahoe Keys turns 40 this year, and if you think we can simply leave it at that then you don’t know the community of South Lake Tahoe.

Is there anyone who does not have an opinion on this controversial middle-aged celebrity? The Keys is both vilified and adored by everyone who knows anything about life at the lake. It has been called an environmental blunder, an ecological disaster, a developer’s folly. But this coalition of islands, lagoons and bays is also cherished by the boat owners, vacation families, business owners and full-time residents who live there. The 1,300 homes and townhouses that jut into Lake Tahoe’s south shore sell for an average price of $700,000; $3.2 million for a high-end, waterfront home. And if you want to build your own dream house, lots are still available – although there aren’t many left.

Like it or hate it, Tahoe Keys is probably the most misunderstood piece of land (group of islands? Sand bar?) in the Sierra.



For instance: Did you know that Tahoe Keys’ water treatment system was the first of its kind anywhere in the world? Considered state of the art when it was developed around 1960, engineers from as far away as Japan visited The Keys to study the system.

Also, did you know that The Keys was once the proposed site of the Lake Tahoe Airport? Once a piece of the old 2,000-acre Dunlop Ranch, the area including Pope Marsh and Truckee Marsh was bid on by El Dorado County, which wanted to fill in the wetlands and put the airport there.




But competing with the county was a group of four developers, who envisioned a community of lakefront vacation cabins on a network of islands. This would also include dredging and filling in of the marsh, although on a smaller scale than the airport plan.

The developers won, and work commenced in 1957 – although a survey now suggested that condominiums and single-family homes were what buyers preferred.

“This was back before the TRPA or any of those organizations existed,” said longtime South Lake Tahoe resident Dave Wakeman, now the advertising manager at KOWL-KRLT Radio. “The community looked at the project with slight exasperation, if they looked at it at all. The truth is that very few people really cared. We didn’t even have a building department back then … people just developed whatever they wanted.”

Of course, developers wouldn’t get to square one with such a project today. Pope Marsh was once a part of the 1,100-acre Truckee Marsh, one of the largest natural wetlands in the Sierra Nevada. It served as a natural filtration system for Lake Tahoe and was wiped out by two-thirds by the Keys development.

Once the Upper Truckee River and Trout Creek meandered into the giant marsh, where the water was filtered by vegetation and soil and percolated through a large sand bar before escaping into Lake Tahoe. Even today, the two waterways account for 30 percent of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s watershed.

But when The Keys were developed, much of the marsh was eliminated, and portions of the two waterways were straightened and diverted. Today the Upper Truckee is primarily a fast-moving, straight-shot channel which carries sediment, nutrients and other pollutants directly into the lake.

“Tahoe Keys is one of the most damaging projects ever to hit this region,” said Dave Roberts, the assistant executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “We’re talking about wetlands that once functioned as the most massive water quality treatment at Lake Tahoe. It was, and continues to be, a horrendous environmental mess.”

Many environmentalists and biologists blame Tahoe Keys for much of Lake Tahoe’s declining water clarity. Aquatic vegetation such as Evergreen Water Millfoil got its start in The Keys, which has become a much different environment than the main body of Lake Tahoe. The shallow, warmer water of The Keys is home to non-native fish species such as largemouth bass and other sunfish, and even goldfish.

And if one were to take a plane ride over the area, or even a boat trip, the difference in the appearance of the lake near Tahoe Keys is dramatic.

“The river water flows out (through Truckee Marsh), makes a right turn and deposits sediment all the way to Timber Cove,” said Wakeman, an avid boater. “It’s said that the sediment has raised the lake bottom an average of one or two feet in that area. The Keys is the main reason we have the problems we have with the lake.”

The California Tahoe Conservancy is currently working on projects to restore Trout Creek and the Upper Truckee to its former channels, which will in many places be two to three feet higher than they are now. This will allow for the annual overflow which serves to keep the marsh healthy. The Conservancy also plans a project next summer to replace 7,600 cubic yards of fill material between Tahoe Keys Boulevard and Truckee Marsh, restoring it to marsh land.

“But whatever we think of The Keys, it’s there now and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Roberts said. “The real question is how do we deal with it now?”

Next Week: Building in The Keys, then and now.


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