Water quality: clear goal of Tahoe summit

Water quality will be one of the main issues discussed at the Lake Tahoe Summit this weekend in Tahoe City.

Despite a spill that dumped sewage directly into the lake last month, and a debate over detection of hydrocarbons in Emerald Bay, the two main challenges to water quality at Tahoe are the usual suspects.

"MTBE and lake clarity - I'd say those are the biggest issues," said Lauri Kemper, division manager at Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) contamination has been controlled and cleanup efforts are still under way, but lake clarity concerns will stick around for a while. The fuel additive has since been banned.

Last year, scientists could see on average 72 feet down into Lake Tahoe's water. Millions are spent each year in hopes to increase this number to historical levels around 100 feet.

Many have asked, why spend this money on something that's simply aesthetic?

But, Kemper said, "lake clarity" is clearly more than just a number.

"It is a sign of the overall health of the whole ecosystem," said Julie Regan, spokeswoman for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a bistate agency created to protect Lake Tahoe. "It's not just the lake. It's everything connected - the wildlife, the forest, the mountains."

Erosion control techniques not only keep sediment from entering the lake, it also ensures harmful pollutants are also filtered out.

"When we control sediment delivery, we are ultimately protecting the whole watershed, which ensures drinking water is protected," Kemper said. "It turns out sediment is an indicator for other things that can contaminate water for drinking."

Controlling algae, another factor to diminished lake clarity, also improves fish habitat.

"It provides a low-nutrient, high-oxygen concentration in the lake, so it's easier for fish to live and breathe in the lake," said Kemper.

The Forest Service is also a big player in restoration efforts. In fact, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit is the only office of its kind because it combines parts of several national forests.

The point was to consolidate management of the entire Lake Tahoe watershed, so efforts to protect it would be coordinated, said Rex Norman, spokesman for the agency in Tahoe.

Norman, Regan and Kemper agreed aesthetic value has a deeper meaning than just a pretty 72 feet of clear water. That breathtaking view brings inspiration to protect the earth and motivation to keep it protected for future generations.

"Pristine - if you look at definition of the word - this place doesn't qualify," said Norman. "It's a heavily influenced human environment. But the fact that we can feel that way when we look at it, we must be doing something right.

"The trick is to keep doing something right and keep doing right better into the future."

Lake Tahoe clarity:

Once translucent down to 102 feet in the 1960s, Lake Tahoe is one of the nation's top environmental concerns. After millions of dollars have been spent on environmental restoration projects in recent decades, many are hopeful research will soon show those projects are having a positive effect.


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