UC Davis Today

  • Beach at Lake Tahoe with people exercising

    Challenges like a reduced snowpack, climate change and drought persist at Lake Tahoe. Luckily, so does its beauty.

  • Bill Clinton looking through an instrument with Al Gore, left, and Charles Goldman, right,  looking on

    President Bill Clinton convened the first Tahoe Summit in 1997. He’s seen here with Al Gore and Charles Goldman aboard the research vessel John LeConte. (Jay Mather/Sacramento Bee courtesy photo)

  • Row of seated people with woman speaking at podium in center

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein opened the 2014 summit, which brought together California and Nevada elected officials to renew their commitment to restoring Lake Tahoe.

  • Rows of chairs on a lawn with pine trees in the back ground and with some people sitting in them

    Roughly 700 Tahoe residents and agency, academic, and nonprofit stakeholders attended the 18th annual Tahoe Summit in South Lake Tahoe.

  • Man and woman walking together under big pine trees

    Geoff Schladow walks with Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Director Joanne Marchetta as the summit is about to begin.

  • Man and woman standing up, woman speaking from podium

    Dianne Feinstein and Harry Reid speak at the Tahoe Summit. UC Davis’ annual State of the Lake report provides the scientific foundation for political efforts to restore the lake.

  • Man speaking from podium

    Geoff Schladow said several challenges face Lake Tahoe — from climate change and drought to wildfires and invasive species. The trick is learning how they all interact.

  • Gov. Jerry Brown speaking at the podium

    California Gov. Jerry Brown said it’s going to take science and learning to live with nature to truly preserve Lake Tahoe.

  • Diver in a clear lake holding a clam

    UC Davis research diver Brant Allan holds Asian clams while installing rubber barriers to control their spread in 2012. (Joe Proudman/UC Davis photo)

  • The UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center shares the lessons of Lake Tahoe, pictured, with resource managers struggling with similar challenges at lakes worldwide.

True-blue science to save Lake Tahoe

By Kat Kerlin

When Geoff Schladow was a child, Booker T. and the M.G.’s were on the radio playing “Green Onions,” and the waters of Lake Tahoe were intensely, absurdly blue. You could drop a white disc into the water and watch it, with your naked eye, sink more than 100 feet below the surface.  

Fast forward to August 2014. Schladow, now director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center at UC Davis, was watching Booker T. play to a crowd at Sand Harbor on Tahoe’s east shore. The music — and the scientist that he is — led Schladow to think about the changes the lake has seen in the years since 1962 when “Green Onions” started walking its haunting bass line for the first time.

A lot has happened in that time: Development has encroached around the lake. Species like milfoil, Mysis shrimp and Asian clams have invaded its shoreline and waters.  Summers have gotten hotter and longer. The snowpack has shrunk. Wildfires have raged.  And lake clarity has decreased from more than 100 feet in the 1960s to an average of 70 feet today.

One thing that’s been consistent for all of that time is UC Davis’ close eye on Lake Tahoe. University of California Professor John LeConte took the first scientific measurements in Lake Tahoe in 1868 — just a few years before Mark Twain would famously describe the lake as “surely the fairest picture the whole world affords.”

Then in 1958, UC Davis limnologist Charles Goldman began conducting research at Lake Tahoe, pioneering more than 50 years of consistent data on the lake environment — a legacy Schladow and TERC scientists continue today, often in partnership with agencies and researchers across the region.

Secchi disc measurements

Every 10 days since 1968, UC Davis scientists have lowered the white Secchi disc into Lake Tahoe to record its clarity, which is regarded as the key indicator of its overall health.

By 1997, Lake Tahoe was in a crisis. Lake clarity had dropped nearly in half — from 102 feet in 1968 to 64 feet. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore convened the first Tahoe Summit that year, ushering in an era of bi-state, bipartisan support to save the lake, which straddles California and Nevada.

The summit set the stage for passage of the first Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which allotted federal and private funds to preserve and restore the lake. Since then, $1.74 billion in public and private funding has been invested to improve the lake’s environment.

Tahoe is worth saving

While efforts to preserve the lake have not been free from all political tensions, federal and state leaders from both states agree that one of the nation’s biggest and bluest lakes is worth saving. They have met for each of the past 17 years at the Lake Tahoe Summit to publicly renew that commitment.

This year’s Aug. 18 summit in South Lake Tahoe brought together California and Nevada elected officials.

On the California side were Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown, Rep. John Garamendi and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. From Nevada came Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller, Gov. Brian Sandoval and Reps. Tom McClintock and Mark Amodei.

What’s trying to damage the lake

“Drought, wildfire, invasive species — they are ruining this country, and they are really trying to damage this lake,” Reid said.

Providing the scientific foundation that federal, state and local government agencies use to assess the lake’s health and guide management decisions is the annual Tahoe: State of the Lake report, prepared since 2007 by the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center and released just a few days before the summit.

“Without an unassailable data record, we would not be discussing how best to restore Lake Tahoe,” Schladow told the crowd at this year’s summit. “We would be arguing about whether it had changed at all.”

Not so simple

This year’s data showed that lake clarity has been stabilizing and has improved since the 1997 summit from 64 feet to 70 feet.  It also showed the impact of climate change and drought: The lake level rose by only 6 inches during the spring snowmelt, one of the lowest increases recorded, and is likely to fall below the natural rim later this year.

“It used to be simple at Lake Tahoe,” Schladow said. “It was all about controlling development and the pollution that came with it. That’s no longer the case; it was probably never the case.

“We now recognize that while development was taking place, other factors were changing simultaneously — the climate, new species, increasing biomass in the basin and the impacts of the increasing number of wildfires outside the Tahoe Basin."

New tools and models help measure

And it’s not all about the white disc anymore. A variety of computer models, sensors and other equipment is being used to measure everything from how water moves and mixes, to water chemistry, nutrient levels, oxygen, temperature and how all of that influences the introduction of more visible indicators, like invasive species, algae, lower lake levels and wildfire.

For example, this August, TERC initiated a network of sensors to monitor the nearshore environment, where most people experience the lake. The sensors will provide real-time data about water quality along the nearshore, collecting information agencies can use to explore solutions to improve this area of the lake.

Research extends to other ecosystems

TERC scientists have taken the lessons of Lake Tahoe to help lakes worldwide struggling with similar challenges. For instance, managers of New York’s Lake George sought TERC’s advice for its invasive Asian clam problem. (An Asian clam control project in Tahoe’s Emerald Bay killed 90 percent of the clams there, TERC reported this year.)

They are also working with researchers in New Zealand to understand how sediments enter lakes and are advising lakes and fisheries experts in Bhutan.

Providing meaningful advice

“While it may be convenient to separate the issues — clarity, invasive species, drought, ecosystem health, climate change — they are not separable,” Schladow said.

“They all interact, and we can only provide meaningful advice if we understand them and think about the Tahoe Basin as an interconnected system.”

TERC also takes its education and outreach mission seriously. They teach the public about freshwater ecosystems at TERC’s two public education centers, one in Incline Village at the Sierra Nevada College campus and the other housed in a historic fish hatchery in South Lake Tahoe.

About 12,000 people visit the centers each year to watch 3-D movies of Lake Tahoe, play with a high-tech “sandbox” that teaches about watersheds in a truly hands-on way, climb aboard a virtual research vessel, hear educational talks on a variety of Tahoe topics, and learn more about the Tahoe Basin.

Kat Kerlin covers the environmental sciences for Strategic Communications.

The photo on the home page is a scene from the beach at South Lake Tahoe showing a majestic view of the mountain lake. Gregory Urquiaga of Strategic Communications took this and most of the photos in the slideshow except where otherwise credited.

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