The Trash Down There: Keeping Lake Tahoe Blue

Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in the country, has a dirty secret hiding underneath its pristine mountainous shores and beautiful turquoise waters. That secret isn’t connected to the legends of mob victims or railroad workers said to be sunk in the depths of these waters that may or may not be there, but something a little more tangible and nearer to the surface – trash.

The second deepest lake in the United States, located one third in Nevada and two thirds in California, is in the midst of a massive cleanup. While that may prompt images of workers combing the beaches of the lake with pickers in hands, this clean-up took a different approach, one that requires total submersion.

The vision of such a unique clean-up came from Colin West, 34, a SCUBA diver, media producer, and founder of the Tahoe based non-profit Clean Up the Lake, which is performing a circumnavigational underwater clean-up around the entirety of the 72-mile lake. For West the vision came when he was spending time on vacation in Belize.

Believe it or not, tons and tons of trash lie just below the surface. Photo: Tim Peterson/Unsplash

The scenery was otherwise gorgeous, but West was struck by the sheer amount of garbage washing up on shore. He organized some clean ups in the Ambergris Caye area while there, all the while thinking of how he could help back home in Lake Tahoe, where he had settled nearly a decade ago. Thus, a big lifestyle change from owning a film and production company to life as the founder of a non-profit.

“I was traveling the world, drinking wine, and eating good food then I decided to become a garbage man,” says West. “I really wanted to do something more for the world.”

While West’s intentions were good, the task proved to be quite the undertaking that involved hours of planning, grant writing, donations, numerous volunteer hours, and a fair bit of hard labor. Big donations from the Tahoe Fund and Tahoe Blue Vodka helped to lift the project off the ground, yet even with financial backing the group still had to follow up on every little details. Things like tracking down donors who’d lend the group boats for the day, for example. Tough logistics like weather, navigating smoky days from nearby wildfires, winds, and a set of unprecedented heat waves that erupted in the area throughout the summer added another element of surprise, yet amidst all the chaos the group pushed on.

Now more than 39 days into the clean-up armed with a crew of 81 volunteers, the team has cleaned 37 miles of the 72-mile shoreline. As of late summer, the crew had already gathered over 8,000 pounds of trash. The effort that began in May is slated to be completed in January of 2022.

Photo courtesy of the author and Clean Up the Lake

The group spends three days a week on the lake diving. Each dive is approximately 45 min to 1 hour, with the teams typically doing three dives a day, with between 3 to upwards of 10 divers on big days. The trash is brought up to free divers some 25 feet down, who then put it onto a kayak that paddles the trash to a nearby boat, that then transfers the materials to a collection spot on shore where it is intricately sorted by material and use type. These dives can typically cover about a mile of underwater in a day with exception of the particularly cluttered spots in the lake can sometimes require to a multi-day cleanup effort.

“The hot spots are unbelievable,” says Sadye Easler, the teams program manager. “Sometimes we are filling [20-30 liter] mesh bags with trash by the second.”

Once on the shore, the team sorts the trash according to a categorization technique developed by the United Nations as a way to sort marine trash. Adapted a little to suit the lake, the team divides the trash into 9 material types and 83 use-type categories. The trash is separated and the items are weighed, counted, the location the trash comes from recorded, data that helps the team understand the types and amount of trash that falls around different parts of the lake.

Occasionally, the team recovers material they, we’ll say, arrived in the lake suspiciously, that they pass along to the local authorities for further investigation. There are items that may remain at the bottom because they are too heavy to drag to the top. Still some things they find appear to be 50 years or older which constitutes them as historical artifacts and cannot be removed without being identified and recorded by an archaeologist. Unsurprisingly, and sadly, they’ve found nearly 2,000 cans to this point.

Not a bad place for a sanitation engineer. Photo courtesy the author and Clean Up the Lake

The goal of the program is not to clean up the lake once and call it a project, but to help to implement future mitigation strategies so that the group doesn’t have to come back in the future. While the decay of the lake’s renowned clarity continues to diminish with algae blooms, and rising lake temperatures threatening the lake’s delicate ecosystem, West and the team are hopeful they can at least make a significant difference when it comes to keeping trash out of the lake. Keeping Tahoe Blue in their own way, you might say.

“We are out here stacking the trash and trying to make a difference,” he says, “we want to be present here in Tahoe for a long time and are going to do our best to help to mitigate litter well into the future.”

Top photo: Ludovic Fekete

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