RENO - If John Kleppe, electrical engineering professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, has his way, a fake tree his students have designed will be placed around the Lake Tahoe Basin to gather valuable water, weather and pollution data that could help restore the lake's endangered ecosystem.
The concrete tree painted to resemble wood has been fashioned to resemble a "snag" - one of the many dying trees in the basin - and would be placed in wilderness areas to record the water content of snow, take meteorological readings and, mounted with carbon dioxide sensors, measure air pollution in the basin. It could also be fitted with tiny digital cameras to record water clarity.
"This would be something that wouldn't bother people," Kleppe said. "It would fit in naturally with its surroundings."
The tree will be ready for use in about a year, Kleppe said. Such innovative technology has been created by his students in the university's Lemelson Center for Invention, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Kleppe has already established a weather station at Fallen Leaf Lake, above Tahoe's southwest shore, and says Fallen Leaf is a microcosm of Tahoe. The smaller lake's decline in clarity is being reversed thanks to its residents' response to its ecological needs, Kleppe said.
Kleppe said in addition to the fake tree, a weather station placed at the east-shore Thunderbird Lodge - where the university intends to perform environmental research on Tahoe - also would provide clues to the complex relationship between the lake's ecology and human encroachment.
The lake's legendary surface clarity has diminished by about 30 percent in three decades, down to about 77 feet.
For years, Kleppe has believed that if an environmental problem at Fallen Leaf Lake could be solved, it could be at Tahoe.
"To me, it seems absurd that we shouldn't be using Fallen Leaf as a test bed for Lake Tahoe," said Kleppe, who also has put a weather station at an elementary school in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., to understand Lake Tahoe's dramatic loss in clarity.
Using data from Fallen Leaf Lake as an example, Kleppe has plotted the loss of clarity in Fallen Leaf and Tahoe. Fallen Leaf has a surface area of about two miles (more than 100 times smaller than Tahoe) and is located on the lake's south shore near the Desolation Wilderness Area.
Kleppe has found that Fallen Leaf Lake, which went through a noticeable loss of clarity in the past two decades, has improved its clarity to that of more than 30 years ago. These levels reflect the fact that Fallen Leaf residents have generally become more responsive to the lake's ecological needs, Kleppe said.
These efforts, he hopes, will in turn spawn productive partnerships among businesses, citizens and political entities at Lake Tahoe.
"Saving the lake isn't going to happen unless all of these folks are on board together," Kleppe said. "Citizen monitoring is just one great example of what can be done at Lake Tahoe. If we can recruit more 'citizen-samplers' to compile long-term data bases for research, we will have created a greater sense of understanding among the people who live at the lake about the complexity of solutions required to save the lake."