Declining Clarity of a Jewell Exploring Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is the pristine jewel of the West Coast, known around the world for its beauty. The Lake Tahoe area was even in the spotlight for the winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley in 60’s. Over the decades we have learned, by mistake, what needs to be done to protect the lakes’ beauty and character. The lake is foremost known for its color and clarity, and has been capitalized on for these qualities. However, upon enjoying the lake and creating a tourist and recreational draw we have jeopardized the lake for all the features that we most enjoy and treasure. Simply put the clarity, color and beauty of the lake are in trouble, and the transparency is decreasing at a frightening rate.

The build up of phosphorous and nitrates in the lake has promoted the growth of algae that clouds the water, changing the famous aqua, sapphire blue color to a murky, cloudy green. Let’s take a look at why we should be concerned with the declining clarity of a lake, and why this lake is so special and unique, and why the surrounding environment is so important. There are many factors involved in causing the decline briefly discussed in this paper; including soil erosion, air quality/pollution, stream conditions which are water flow, and algae growth. Concluding with some positive measures that will help the lake over the long term.

Academic anxiety?
Get original paper in 3 hours and nail the task
Get your paper price

124 experts online

In exploring what makes this lake unique and special we must first explore where it is, how it got there, and it’s aquatic makeup. Lake Tahoe known only to the Paiute Indians until it was “discovered” by General Fremont in 1844. The Lake’s exceptional transparency was described by Mark Twain as “the finest picture earth affords.”

The lake is over a mile high and is nestled amongst the Sierra Nevada, snowcapped, mountain range. Lake Tahoe is uniquely divided between two states, Nevada and California, which presents difficulties in long-term studies, developmental controls, and protection goals.(See figure one) The Tahoe Basin has many political arms wrapped around it , often with overlapping jurisdiction, including the Federal Government, two States, five Counties, and a City. One example of this problem is the fact that:

“Lake Tahoe is designated as an Outstanding National Resource Water (ONRW) under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Water Quality Standards Program and the Clean Water Act. With this designation, Lake Tahoe is provided the highest level of protection under the antidegradation policy and no further degradation should be permitted. The state of California recognizes this designation, while Nevada does not.”(1:1)

The one fact that everyone seems to agree on is Lake Tahoe needs its purity protected and preserved. Contrary to the belief that the lake was formed by a volcanic crater collapse; the lake actually, was formed by the rise and fall of the landscape due to faulting. The Sierra Nevada is a batholith, “an enormous, complex masses of solidified magma, usually granite …. composed of many individual plutons that push aside some of the rocks of the crust while melting and digesting others” (2:403). This pushing aside and uplifting formed a “deep graben fault basin” (3:42).

The lake has a surface area of 193 square miles (122,200 acres); a depth of 1,645 feet at maximum and 989 feet at average; a surface temperature of 68°F maximum and 41°F minimum; a capacity of 122,160,280 acre-feet of water; a length of 22 miles and width of 12 miles; a surface elevation of 6,229 feet above sea level; and a shoreline of 71 miles, divided into 42 miles in California and 29 miles in Nevada. Lake Tahoe’s great depth makes it the third largest in North America and the tenth deepest in the World, rivaled by such lakes as Oregon’s Crater Lake and Russia’s Lake Baikal(3:42,4:1,5:2,6:87).

“Lake Tahoe is as long as the English Channel is wide. The Panama Canal, 700 ft wide and 50 ft Deep, could be filled with Lake Tahoe’s water even if it circled the globe, at the equator, and there would still be enough water left to fill a canal of the same size running from San Francisco to New York.” (3:1)

The altitude of the area and freezing mountains would cause one to think the lake would freeze over, however, the tremendous depth prevents the lake from freezing. The theory of convection is proven here; the volume is always in motion, as the surface cools it gets heavier and sinks, and the warmer, deeper, water is lighter and rises, mixing with the cool water and thus the lake does not freeze over. Some inlets, however, being shallower, have been covered with a thin layer of ice.

The lack of ice on the top of the lake does not affect the quality, in any way, other than to demonstrate its depth that does contribute to its clarity and color. The lake basin is affected by its surrounding composition and rock content, which are mostly glacial till and sediment. Another contributing factor to the lakes’ environmental delicacy is that the lake has an extraordinarily long retention time. In other words, if completely drained it would take over 700 years to refill to its existing level. There is some water loss due to evaporation but only one river flows out of Lake Tahoe, the Truckee River (63 streams flow into the Lake). Little turn-over action occurs to the nutrients that flow into the lake, because of this limited drainage and capacity.

One issue that was addressed in the late 1950’s and 1960’s was sewage. The flow of sewage has been diverted away from the lake since the 1960’s. First with the costly and controversial Culp’s advanced five-step treatment wastewater system and now a simpler, at least more effective, waste management system. Even with sewage being exported the development to the Tahoe Basin over the last few decades has brought increased pollution, both to the streams, the atmosphere, and the groundwater.

The increased nutrients from all of this pollution have brought steady algae growth and increased loss of clarity. According to, Mr. Bob Richards, of the Tahoe Research Group, in Tahoe City, the lake is loosing one foot per year of transparency (1). Another expert and researcher on the conditions of Lake Tahoe for the past thirty years, Mr. Charles R. Goldman states that, “lake chemistry and biology since the early 1960’s has shown that algal production is increasing at a rate greater than 5 percent per year with concomitant decline of clarity at the alarming rate of 0.5M per year” (7:140).

How do they find these ratings? The process is simple but very accurate. A 10 inch diameter, white plate, a secchi disc, is lowered, on a meter line, the team of researchers records the point that the disc disappears from view, then raises it back up and records the point at which they can just see it. This process is repeated till 30-35 measurements are recorded, per session, several times a year, and the average of those readings is the annual for the year.(See figure 2)

As evident, by the secchi disc ratings, the clarity has been dramatically affected; now let’s look at how the lake got this way. Many contributing factors are at work on the lake soil erosion, atmospheric pollution, water inflow, and algal growth. Below I’ll discuss briefly each factor.

Examining soil erosion has brought some great public debates to bear. These debates have resulted because this issue affects the money and power that be, and others: developers, casinos, hotels, and homeowners. Lake Tahoe’s population has increased dramatically over the past few decades and can inflate to over a quarter of a million people on peak holiday weekends.

One debate involving soil erosion is whether the logging activities of the 1800’s are what has caused the lake clarity reduction we’re combating today. However, extensive studies and reconstruction of the effects that the logging might have caused have concluded that the lumbering activities were undetectable and little impact on the clarity. “The major changes in the lake documented in recent years are much greater and longer lasting than those, if any, resulting from the 1800’s logging of the basin.”(5:4)

Disrupted soil and enhanced run-off, vegetation removal, fire, and the loss of wetlands, over the last thirty years, are all nutrient providing elements that have accelerated the growth of plankton and attached algae. The building boom of the 1960’s and 1970’s paid little concern to the environmental impacts they were causing, by paving roads, cutting into the slopes, destroying wetlands, and more. The area where there was earth is now paved, which in turn causes more phosphorus-rich sediment to run into the lake.

The surface water runoff and eroded soil carry the pollutants to the stream that feed into the Lake, and are directly attributed to the increase in algae population. The wetland areas are proven to buffer the land from receiving waters, like an antacid buffers from the foods eaten and your stomach lining. The wetland stabilizes nitrogen, the compounds causing algae growth, into unusable nitrogen gas, thus limiting the growth population of algae. The destruction of the wetlands has removed a vital link in the ecosystem.

Not only concrete paving is the problem but with every expansion, or some might call improvement, population has increased and thus more automobiles, which means more atmospheric pollution. To comprehend why air pollution is detrimental to the lake conditions lets review the water cycle; the “three main sources of new nutrients entering the lake are streams, groundwater, and direct atmospheric deposition (rain, snow, ice, dust particles) onto the land surface” (5:9).

Research has demonstrated that air quality, in the form of pollution, is a problem, especially where there are increased vehicles. These pollutants are trapped in the air above the lake by an inversion layer during the winter and when it snows or rains the pollutants are delivered into the lake directly or via streams and runoff.

In addition winds carry sulfur contaminants into the air over the basin adding to the pollutant deposits. Most of the pollutants are already in the area in the forms of automobile emissions, road dust from construction, wood fires, and combustion of diesel fuel and heating oils (3:45). Also, acid rains do fall, noticeably, in the Tahoe area carrying and depositing considerable amounts of nitrogen, which stimulates aquatic plant and algae growth.

Compound these pollutants with the destruction of the wetland communities, of the ecosystem in the basin, and the capacity to filter-out nitrogen and other pollutants is inhibited. Wetland vegetation, as mentioned previously, takes up the nitrogen and buffers it, keeping it from fueling the algae growth. The precipitation deposition into the lake adversely reacts with these destruction’s; wetland reduction, and the slick-impervious rooftops, roads, and parking lots’ run-off, and soil erosion, all combining to accelerate release of nutrients into the lake. The adversity varies with the varying land disturbances.

Air quality controls obviously aid in the fight to protect the lake, but more emphasis is needs to be geared towards wetland preservation and land controls and watershed management. Waterflow into lake Tahoe is the number one contributor to the decline in clarity because of all the elements combining to impact the quality of input into the lake.

Lake Tahoe is filled by 63 streams and thus creating a web linking the wetlands, groundwater, streams and lake ecosystems. Displayed earlier is the importance of each ecosystem to each other in creating a balance in the lake. The uniqueness of Lake Tahoe is its color and clarity, but, also in its phosphorous quality, nitrogen limited system. “In most productive lakes the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous are in the low parts per million range. In Lake Tahoe there are only a few parts per billion of these same elements, and the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorous has been well below the 10 to 1 ratio required by most plants.” (3:50, 8:1322)

However, over the last decade the ratio is beginning to change causing changes defined as early “eutrophication”. Research has shown that streams do carry stimulating nutrients into the lake enhancing algae growth. The streams thus cause nutrient loading of the lake and the wetlands are what helps reduce this process. Land use is strongly tied to the watershed characteristics and whether the watershed will be nutrient high.

In watershed analysis of Trout Creek and Blackwood Creek nitrite and nitrate concentrations have been declining over the last 10 years, or more, where the increases were caused from sewage and logging consecutively, up to 20 years ago. This decline and hence recovery may be partly due to the rapid vegetation re-growth after the logging activities. But today’s destruction of land is extensive with the road cuts and developments.

“Watershed recovery times at Tahoe may take at least 10-20 years, whereas disturbances such as run-off enhancement from increased impervious surface area may be permanently enhance the nutrient loading of the streams and in turn the lake.(10:87)” The cycling of nutrients, as seen in figure four, show the delicate balance and the nutrient capacity will depend upon streams inflow, air quality sources, and sedimentary soil controls.

The nutrient inflow or loading of the lake water directly results in creased algae or Planktonic algae, which there are two kinds: free-floating algae, and attached. Worse case scenario of high nutrient loading would be “the suspended algae cloud the lake water and when algal cells die and decay, they often reduce the dissolved oxygen levels to the point where aquatic organisms can no longer survive in the deep waters(5:6).” Now, Tahoe is not there, yet, but there is evidence of decreasing clarity, increasing planktonic, attached and free-floating algae.

Algae has been found to be greatest where there is greater development, logically the run-off. of fertilizers from lawns and golf courses, and other land disruptions discussed prior. In addition the highest production of algae occurs when Tahoe has had an extremely high precipitation season. “The El Niño event of 1983 modified weather to produce heavy precipitation resulting in high levels of surface runoff from the disturbed watershed as well as wind-mixing of stored nutrients (5:7).” These conditions tend to provide the nitrogen needed for the “lighted zone,” of the lake water, to produce record crops of algae.

Lake Tahoe has been studied and compared to other Western Lakes, such as, Castle Lake and Pyramid Lake, and arguments have been made that the climatic variations affect all the lakes of the west equally, increasing fertility to the same degree. However, Castle Lake has not shown the same fertility, despite same data collection methods.(3) Which demonstrates Lake Tahoe’s problems are self-inflicted.

The construction and building boom has monopolized the Tahoe basin and has helped to wreak havoc on the precious balance in the lake. Today environmentalist, scientists, and concerned citizens have begun to understand and change the way we treat the environment and the lake, thus protecting the lake quality.

Gone unchecked the lake conditions will worsen. Even in the 1960’s, in May and June, large crops of attached algae died and released from their sites (along piers and shore rocks), coating the beaches and marinas with a brown, slimy, smelly material that decays and eventually returns as bacteria and nutrients to the lake through wave action (3:47). This picture is not what most people envision when picturing the sapphire blue waters of the lake. Obvious changes and the educated observations have led to great concerns over the quality of the lake. Many changes are not as visible but if left alone will quickly become visible, thus destroying the ecosystem of the basin.

As mentioned, the lake is the center of many factions of political control. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) has been a strong facilitator of the needs for controls, there is little evidence to show they have made any tremendous impact needed to reverse the trends of fertility in the Lake. TRPA has put forth pollution control measures called “Best Management Practices or BMP’s.”

The program requires new projects to implement the BMP’s required paved driveways, which at first seems like a contradiction to the research, however, if we compare a graded, disturbed, un-paved surface with a properly paved surface, the un-paved has nothing to hold the soil in place, washing the unnecessary sediment into the lake. Other BMPs, include but are not limited to, revegetation programs, retaining structures, and slope stabilization.

To protect the lake all parties involved need to unify the conservation efforts and develop an organized protection and planning bureau or assembly, sponsored with governmental support, above and beyond the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Lake Tahoe Interagency Monitoring Program. The current agencies, and committees have taken positive steps to protect the area which includes:

  • slow releasing or no chemical fertilizers on lawns and golf courses.
  • ski slopes are no longer allowed to use ammonium nitrate to help make snow.
  • California passed a 85 million dollar bond in 1982 to buy-up sensitive lands, potentially endangering the lake, now are protected.
  • Nevada passed a similar 30 million dollar buy-up bond in 1986.
  • The afore-mentioned mentioned BMP’s.

Without these positive approaches, the dedication of the University of Davis, Researchers and Scientists, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, and other groups of concerned organizations, Tahoe would be unclear and green today.

The general public can take measures by treating our delicate ecosystems with respect and becoming educated on our delicate balances. Steps could include:

  • Bike more or walk- save our air quality.
  • Maintain cars properly and up to codes.
  • Don’t Drip. Leaky facets waste 9 liters of water per minute.
  • Don’t pour toxins into the drainage system (paint, gases, fertilizers, etc.)
  • Influence your work place to take steps in being Earth conscious.

For heavens’ sake even the cartoons are teaching our children to be earth aware with “Captain Planet, he’s our hero, taking pollution down to zero…,” teaching children to reduce, reuse, and recycle, and to fight the bad-guys who pollute our earth’s ecosystems. All adults can be Captain Planets and protect our world.


  1. Richards, Bob.Personal Phone Interviews, FAX.
  2. Gabler, Robert, Sager,Robert, and Wise, Daniel Essentials of Physical Geography. 5th ed.Orlando:Saunders College Publishing,1997.
  3. Goldman, Charles R., Richards, Robert. The Urbanization of the Lake Tahoe Basin: A Microcosm for the Study of Environmental Change with Continuing Development. Proceedings, State of the Sierra Symposium 1985-86, Pub. #177. California:University of Davis, 1986
  4. Tahoe Research Group, State Natural Resources. Lake Tahoe Facts”, “Ten Most Frequently Asked Questions. Internet address:WWW.Ceres, 15 April 1997.
  5. Goldman, Charles R., Byron, Earl R. Changing Water Quality at Lake Tahoe: the First Five Years of the Lake Tahoe Interagency Monitoring Program. The California State Water Resources Control Board. California:University of Davis, Institute of Ecology, Tahoe Research Group, 1987.
  6. Sheaffer, John R., Stevens, Leonard A., Future Water, An Exciting Solution to America’s Most Serious Resource Crisis. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1983.
  7. Reuter, J.E., et al. University Contribution to Lake and Watershed Management: Case Studies From the Western United States–Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake. Watershed ’96 A National Conference on Watershed Management. Maryland:Baltimore, Water Environment Federation, 12 June 1996. ISBN: 1-57278-028-2.
  8. Goldman, Charles R.Primary Productivity, Nutrients, and Transparency During the Early Onset of Eutrophication. American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, Inc.. 33(6, part1),1321-1333. 1988.
  9. Goldman, Charles R., Jassby Alan D., de Amezaga, Evelyne. Forest Fires, Atmospheric Deposition and Primary Productivity at Lake Tahoe, California-Nevada. Verhandlungen-Proceedings-Travaux of the International Association for Theoretical and Applied Limnology, Congress in Munich. Iss 24, 499-503. Stuttgart, Germany, 1990.
  10. Byron, Earl r., Goldman, Charles R., “Land-Use and Water Quality in Tributary Streams of Lake Tahoe, California-Nevada”. Journal of Environmental Quality Vol. 18,no.1, (Jan-Mar 1989):84-88.
  11. Bowman, Chris. “Clinton Seeks Summit on Lake Tahoe Pollution” The Sacramento Bee 26 October 1996:B1
  12. Bowman, Chris, Hoge, Patrick. “Runoff, Air Pollution Cloud Waters of Crystal-Clear Lake” The Sacramento Bee 8 December 1996:A28
  13. Associated Press. “Team Seeks Clues to Cloudy Lake Tahoe Water” The Sacramento Bee 16 October 1995:SUPCAL.
  14. Malley, George. Personal Interview. 15 April, 5 May 1997

This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

Need a custom essay sample written specially to meet your requirements?

Choose skilled expert on your subject and get original paper with free plagiarism report

Order custom paper Without paying upfront

Declining Clarity of a Jewell Exploring Lake Tahoe. (2018, Jun 22). Retrieved from