Underwater cleanup progresses at Lake Tahoe despite smoky setbacks

Laney Griffo
Clean up the Lake divers have pulled up many unique items.
Laney Griffo/Tahoe Daily Tribune

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Clean Up the Lake has reached another milestone by reaching the West Shore of Lake Tahoe after a summer full of starts and stops.

Divers have now cleaned almost 44 miles of Lake Tahoe’s shoreline, putting them at 60% complete. Within that distance, they’ve removed more than 21,000 pieces of trash weighing 18,000 pounds.

“It’s hard to say exactly how I feel, because it’s just been go, go, go and I look back and think, ‘where have the last five and a half months gone,” said Colin West, founder and executive director for Clean Up the Lake. “It’s been a whirlwind but in the best way.”

The project kicked off on May 14 at Edgewood Tahoe on the South Shore. The divers have been traveling counterclockwise around the lake.

The team is now leaving Tahoe City and West said he’s excited that his compass is finally pointing south and he’s heading home.

Divers have completed 44 miles of their 72-mile project.
Provided/Clean up the Lake

The project was supposed to wrap-up this month but smokey days over the summer forced several dives to be canceled. West estimates that between the Caldor Fire and various other smoke-filled days, they lost about five weeks.

“It’s been difficult to have that happen, after a pandemic and that set us back,” West said. “But the whole team is strong, is skilled and is ambitious and ready to go to the finish line.”

Tahoe Blue Vodka owner Matt Levitt has been integral in this project. The company not only donated $100,000 to the project but Levitt has been diving with the team.

He said the project is going to keep moving forward this winter, as long as the team is willing. They now need dry-suit certified divers, which there are less of in the area, and the cold has scared off some of the volunteers.

“The month we lost might take us three months to make up,” Levitt said. “We’re hoping to finish this winter but it takes as long as it takes. We’re really pleased with the way it’s been going. Even if we had to stop today, we’ve still pulled up 20,000 pounds of trash.”

West also added that this time of year there are less boats on the water, which not only makes the dives safer but there aren’t as many boats stirring up the water so it will be clearer.

Back on land, scientists at the Desert Research Institute and UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center are studying the items that are being pulled up from the depths.

Interns sort the trash and many scientists are studying the plastics.
Laney Griffo/Tahoe Daily Tribune

“Single-use plastic is a significant source of pollution in the lake,” said Dr. Monica Arienzo, assistant research professor for the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI.

She, along with several students, including lab technician Julia Davidson, are leading local research into microplastics.

“Plastics coming from single-use items could be depositing harmful microplastics into the land,” Davidson said, adding that these microplastics could have unknown effects on human and environmental health.

Heather Segale, education and outreach director for TERC said most microplastics have no matching fingerprints to other plastics, meaning they are coming from an unknown source. The team at TERC is looking at the degradation of plastics that the divers are pulling up in hopes of matching the microplastics to their original sources.

Even without knowing the source of the microplastics, they know they aren’t good for the lake.

“Plastics break down into smaller pieces, making them harder to pick up, fish can’t digest the microplastics and they are a breeding ground for certain bacterias,” Segale said.

Those involved with the project are happy with the awareness that they’ve raised.
Provided/ Ludovic Feketes

For Segale, and many others involved, one of the greatest impacts of this project is the publicity for the issue.

“We’re raising awareness to the amount of trash that’s been dropped into the lake,” Segale said.

“A lot of people in our community tend to point fingers at tourists for littering and for trashing our area,” West said. “I know there’s issues with the effects around short-term rentals can make that statement lean towards the more accurate side, but the litter we’re seeing around the basin and under the surface is really from the impact of us being here.”

West said they are pulling up a lot of construction trash items, items that are 30 to 40 years old, and items that are clearly accidental, such as cell phones and sunglasses. So, even if tourists disappeared, the trash problem would not disappear with them.

“The main point I’m driving home is that with more humans comes more trash and just from us being here, that has a significant impact on the amount of litter we’re finding under the surface,” West said. “It doesn’t matter where we come from, it just matters that we as a species are present in the basin.”

West hopes that by people seeing the amount of trash they are gathering, they will be inspired to change their habits to prevent more trash from going into the lake.

Depending on the weather this winter, West said he hopes to be done by early 2022.

In addition to the donation by Tahoe Blue Vodka, the project has been made possible by contributions from more than 135 Tahoe Fund donors including Vail Resorts, and the Nevada Division of State Lands’ Lake Tahoe License Plate program and other local grant giving foundations.

To donate or for more information, visit

Divers are pleased to see that most of the trash is 30 to 40 years old.
Provided/Clean up the Lake

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