Professor carries out the mission of Tahoe environmental politics

Rescuing Lake Tahoe from impending environmental doom is a colossal job requiring the commitment of federal, state and local governments, private businesses and environmental advocates.

But behind the scenes, Charles Goldman, a science Superman of sorts, carries out that mission all on his own.

"My father always wanted me to be an Episcopalian priest but I guess I transferred my enthusiasm to Lake Tahoe instead," said the University of California, Davis professor.

More than 40 years ago and armed with a doctorate degree in limnology, a master's in zoology and undergraduate studies in geology, Goldman set off to study Tahoe's freshwater characteristics.

Tahoe's beauty, as it gleamed from the surface, turned out to be just that - a first impression. Soon after his first visits, he discovered that the "jewel of the Sierra" was on the fast track for trouble.

In 1957, Goldman founded the Tahoe Research Group and began measuring the lake's transparency. Some five years later, he discovered the problem that would rally the basin's leaders today - declining water clarity.

Scientists call it eutrophication, the "greening of lakes due to nutrient particles that cause algae to grow in the water," as Goldman defines it.

Immediately, he noticed two practices that were to blame for Tahoe's clouding.

"The Tahoe Keys were already under construction when I got here, and the current practice for sewage treatment was to dump the treated effluent into the lake and bury the solids in landfills," he said. "The early years were very, very destructive."

He wasn't able to stop development of the Tahoe Keys, which destroyed a major portion of Tahoe's largest wetlands, a crucial filtering element for Lake Tahoe's incoming waters.

He did persuade utility providers to change their sewage practices.

Goldman calls it one of his most significant achievements.

"I added just a small amount of this effluent, this treated wastewater, to a jar filled with Tahoe water and within a very short time it turned it bright green," he said. "And that was enough to convince a group of civil engineers that effluent and solid wastes had to be exported out of the basin."

Looking back, he said his work was far from over at that point.

He spent the next few decades figuring out what was causing Tahoe to lose its transparency at the alarming rate of 1 foot each year. It was an unpopular position in the 1960s.

"People didn't believe for at least the next decade that Tahoe was changing and changing for the worse," he said. "It's apparent now, but when I first came here you could see the disk at about 31 to 32 meters below the surface and today we're down to 20 meters."

Peering into the lake's most serious problem uncovered a myriad of environmental threats: suffering forests, accelerated erosion, urbanization of sensitive wetlands, careless snow removal practices and smoggy skies.

Each threat contributes to the diminishing clarity of Tahoe's blue waters.

But Goldman doesn't take an environmental stance. He just studies what is good for the lake and what is harmful to the lake, and leaves it to other organizations to bring those issues to battle.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe closely follows Goldman's findings.

"The underpinnings in the effort to save Lake Tahoe are the commitments and actions of science-based knowledge," said the League's executive director Rochelle Nason. "A lot of protection and restoration efforts are based on some of Dr. Goldman's finding regarding loss of lake clarity and are used to translate the scientific information into good policy."

While the lake is slow to recover, the real gain has been in attitudes.

Some 40 years after the discovery of an ailing Tahoe, the "conflicts have turned into cooperation," Goldman said.

The 1997 Tahoe Presidential Forum put Tahoe in the national spotlight. And efforts to save the lake from being loved to death by its residents and visitors were launched through a $900 million commitment to make environmental repairs in the basin.

In a race against the clock, the Environmental Improvement Program calls for the private sector to join with federal, state and local governments to provide capital improvements within their jurisdictions by 2007, a deadline determined by scientists as the time when damages become irreversible.

So far agencies have kept their promises to work hard and many of the projects are under way or already completed.

"I think they are attainable goals if we make science-based decisions - the EIP is defendable," Goldman added. "I feel more optimistic than ever before because people have agreed to put serious effort into the EIP and I think more importantly the agencies have really come together and recognize that everybody loses if Tahoe loses its water clarity."

Still, retirement for Goldman is out of the question, he said.

His 40-year-old Tahoe Research Group, along with teams from the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute, continue to reel in new scientific discoveries.

Last week, they found new geologic faults on the bottom of Tahoe that indicate the area was hit with heavy earthquakes some time ago.

Goldman, who has aided about 100 graduate students through their thesis work, said he couldn't stand to give up the excitement.

"Now, we have to find out when those earthquakes happened," he said.

The Research Group is also in the middle of another project, a model that will determine which particles are most harmful to the lake's clarity.

While Tahoe has served as a giant Petrie dish for Goldman and his understudies, the lake's significance may serve a wider audience, he said.

"I feel that globally people all over the world are looking to Tahoe for a solution for urbanization in a sensitive environment. Tahoe has become the microcosm for water pollution from urbanization," Goldman said.

"If we can't do it here, what chances do we have globally to save the environment?"


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