A recent study found way less trash in Lake Tahoe than in past years – Las Vegas Sun

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Andy Barron / AP

A man wets his feet in the cool water of Lake Tahoe at Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park in Incline Village, Nev., Monday, July 17, 2023. Tourism officials at Lake Tahoe were surprised, and a bit standoffish, when a respected international travel guide included the iconic alpine lake straddling the California line on a list of places to stay away from this year because of the harmful ecological effects of “over-tourism.”

Tahoe community organizations ranging from business associations to nonprofits to kayak rental companies have long been begging the lake’s visitors to be more responsible with picking up their trash. And now, the results of a two-year study and monitoring project in Lake Tahoe could suggest that the messaging may just be working.

The findings come from Clean Up The Lake’s two-year project that sent scuba divers to clean up trash in 30 “litter hot spots” between 0 and 25 feet deep along Lake Tahoe’s shoreline. Hot spots were areas of heavier-than-normal trash, identified via diver observations and garbage data. The first sweep was finished in July 2021, and the second was completed in fall 2023.

The study found a significant decrease in litter over the two-year period on the Nevada side of the lake (the California areas have not yet been analyzed).

The trash collected on the Nevada side’s 20 hot spots totaled 879.5 pounds of litter in 2023 — a steep drop from 2021’s haul of 2,937 pounds. According to West, unofficial early analysis from the California side, which studied another 10 hot spots, also shows a decrease.

The change could be for any number of reasons. Local nonprofits like the Tahoe Fund, which has spent millions on environmental awareness campaigns since 2010, hope it’s a sign that recreators are taking their messaging to heart.

“I do think people are being more careful,” said Caitlin Meyer, chief program officer for the Tahoe Fund. She credits Clean Up The Lake’s ongoing efforts, as well as comprehensive messaging. “Their successful work, along with ongoing public awareness campaigns around trash, have certainly drawn attention to the issue,” she added, “and I do think people are being more careful.”

West agrees and hopes the results will encourage more support for the next stage of the project: to survey and clean trash at depths of up to 75 feet. He thinks the year-over-year numbers prove that scuba diving cleanups by hand can be an effective method for bettering freshwater lakes that serve as water sources. “So this is a big win for the work we do at Clean Up The Lake,” he said, regardless of whether it’s credited to visitor education or just better cleaning.

“When we think of why, it could be a variety of reasons that are harder to prove,” West said. “One that I would say is a surefire reason is that the litter we cleaned in 2021 had never really been cleaned before. We were probably cleaning 30-40 years of it accumulating.” But he also doesn’t want to write off possible improvements in visitor behavior. “Maybe it could be that people are finally getting the message to pick up and be better stewards.”

One area designated as a hot spot is the shoreline off of Zephyr Cove Resort, from which volunteers pulled more than 8,000 pounds of trash after the Fourth of July in 2023. West says it showed significantly more litter than other sites within the national forest land but that the most trashed areas were around heavy public use areas, like piers and resort docks. Had volunteers not cleaned the beach immediately after the holiday, he thinks the most recent results could have been much different. “Thank goodness we got that out before it made it deeper into the lake,” he added.

The announcement comes on the heels of a second piece of good news in February 2024, which showed that Echo Lakes near South Lake Tahoe is free from many of the pollution and climate change problems of Lake Tahoe. That study showed that the lakes are free of the highly invasive New Zealand mud snails and have a much lower concentration of trash left behind by visitors. It pulled just 36 pounds of litter from a half-mile section of Echo Lakes, compared with the 2021 average of 175.5 pounds in Lake Tahoe per half-mile. “Visitors to Echo Lakes appear to be fairly responsible as a whole,” West said. “And the results suggest that current [invasive species management] programs appear to be yielding positive returns.”

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