Wetlands restored through Cove East project | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Wetlands restored through Cove East project

Susan Wood

The 22 acres shown here underwent a major restoration that brought back wildlife, plants and fauna. The project, which began in 2002, will undergo a second major phase by 2010. (Provided to the Tribune)

A bald eagle swooped over the sage and lupine and called out its signature “eek, eek,” marking a Tahoe Keys territory built five years ago for special pedestrian moments such as this.

America’s patriotic symbol is one of several bird species brought back to the Keys by the Cove East project, a watershed plan intended to restore the wildlife and plants in one of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s most notorious cases of environmental degradation at the hands of development.

The $10.5 million project has come a long way in the last five years, with at least one more major phase to come.

When the California Tahoe Conservancy started moving dirt in summer 2002 to make way for a trail, wetlands area and plant seeding, a sign declaring lakeshore lots for $16,000 served as a reminder of the development rush of the early 1960s. Dillingham Construction of Pleasanton, known to have dredged Pearl Harbor and helped to repair the Bay Bridge after the Loma Prieta earthquake, developed the Keys.

The 22-acre area at the end of Venice Drive became a wasteland, literally. When the Keys channels were low, dredging muck and soil were pumped into an area that’s part of a 700-acre marsh – the largest in the Sierra Nevada. It was once a thriving community for birds and vegetation a half century ago when the South Shore was soon to become a tourism hotspot.

Over 75 percent of marshes and half of meadowlands in the basin have been lost to urban development. The Upper Truckee marsh once extended from the edge of the Al Tahoe subdivision to the far end of Pope Beach.

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The idea of the project was to restore the natural habitat – with a little manmade help along the way. An irrigation system including sprinklers was installed to help bring up the plant life dwarfed by spotty groves of Jeffrey pines. The sprinklers were taken out after three years.

“It was a way to do it faster,” said Rick Robinson, the Conservancy’s natural resource program manager. He toured the project site on Monday with watershed program coordinator Joe Pepi.

CTC officials call the program a success. The willows planted took hold on the banks and in the middle of the wetlands. Birds of various types have been spotted by individual bird watchers and groups. Two resident ospreys can often be found circling, while ducks and Canada geese frolic in the water between the dirt trail and the Upper Truckee River.

“Is that a tern?” Robinson asked Pepi as the svelte white bird soared by. It hovered over the water in search of creatures to eat, reminding Robinson of the vegetation underwater that makes for a haven for insects and fish like the native Lahontan red side.

A beaver has found refuge at the mouth of the river, one of those times when land managers believe the animals assist in restoring the wetlands. It seems the Upper Truckee’s slow flow lessens the impact than the swifter waterways when they build dams.

“In this environment, they’re pretty neutral,” Robinson said. “This is one of those areas they should be.”

For all its success, Robinson mentioned a few areas for improvement relating to dogs disturbing wildlife and leaving feces. The CTC would also like to reroute the Upper Truckee in the next phase due to start by 2010. The depth and width of the river channel makes it virtually impossible to flood the meadow outside the ditch – which would represent the ideal for expanding the wetlands area and filtering the sediment that flows into the lake. The river contributes more of it than any other tributary.

“We’d like to see it flood the meadow,” Robinson said, pointing toward the outcropping of trees across the river.

As for the dogs running off leash in that meadow, there may be a plan in the works to build a designated trail to restrict the pedestrian traffic flow – something Tahoe dog walkers may not embrace.

The trail the CTC built at the project trailhead has gained much popularity over the last five years. Locals and visitors can be seen nearly every day.

Craig and Michaela Morgan frequent the site out on their runs. On Monday, they took time out to walk hand-in-hand to the beach and watch the waves lap the shore.

“I like coming here. The flowers are beautiful,” she said.

Every season looks different at Cove East. Kayakers have been out in full force this spring since the lake level has remained high. Cross country skiers get a few quick turns in a controlled environment in the winter. Sunbathers have hit the beach in recent days as summer officially starts on Thursday.