Wetlands restoration first step to keeping Tahoe blue

Current, recent or proposed wetlands restoration projects in the Lake Tahoe Basin:

n Angora Creek Project. Restoration of creek and meadow near Lake Tahoe Country Club and Lake Tahoe Golf Course. Completed in 1996.

n Cold Creek Project. Nearly 6,000 feet of river and several acres of meadow restored near Lake Christopher. Completed in 1994.

n Cove East Project. Restoration of the Upper Truckee River and 200 acres of surrounding meadow near Tahoe Keys. Currently under way.

n Griff Creek Project. Plan included rebuilding an old reservoir, completed in 1995.

n Lonely Gulch Creek Restoration. Replacement of old concrete dam, restoration of creek. Completed in 1995.

n Meeks Lumber Site. Negotiations ongoing with city of South Lake Tahoe to move that business and restore the wetlands which were once there, fed by Trout Creek.

n Snow Creek Project. Stream and meadow rehabilitation, recently awarded a Conservancy grant and set to get started next fall.

n Trout Creek Restoration. In conjunction with the Upper Truckee Project, currently under way.

Meeting box:

What: Public meeting hosted by the California Tahoe Conservancy, concerning the Upper Truckee River Conservation Westside Restoration Project (Cove East Wetlands Project).

Where: South Lake Tahoe City Council Chambers.

When: Wednesday, Nov. 4, 7 to 9 p.m.

First of a two-part series.

The bumper sticker reads Keep Tahoe Blue - but is it merely a catchy slogan, or a prevailing sentiment? How, exactly, is the common Joe supposed to "Keep Tahoe Blue?"

The answer lies right beneath our feet.

For thousands of years, the sprawling Truckee Marsh-Pope Marsh wetlands served as Lake Tahoe's largest and most effective filtration system. The wetlands were fed by the lake's two biggest tributaries - the Upper Truckee River and Trout Creek.

The two waterways accounted for a little more than 30 percent of Lake Tahoe's total watershed - an enormous percentage when one considers that there are 63 tributaries flowing into the lake.

That all changed in the mid-1950s, when developers dredged out the heart of the wetlands to build Tahoe Keys. Suddenly, 50 percent of the system was gone, and the portions that remained were cut off from one another. The tributaries were also dredged and diverted - in the case of the Upper Truckee, almost beyond recognition. Instead of a meandering river which provided the surrounding countryside with vital nutrients and wildlife habitat, many portions of the river were transformed into straight channels, which deposited great flumes of sediment directly into the lake.

And beginning in the mid-1950s, there were similar scenarios happening all around the lake. By 1980, 75 percent of the Basin's wetlands had been removed or disturbed by development.

"Think of a wetland as the most diverse ecosystem that exists in nature," said Steve Goldman, a stream restoration specialist with the California Tahoe Conservancy. "It's a beautiful, rich environment that serves a number of functions. It's a wildlife area, a natural filtration system, open space and a passive recreation area. The most important thing we can do to protect the environment is to nurture and rehabilitate the wetlands. If you want a healthy blue lake, it all starts there."

The Tahoe Conservancy, in conjunction with several other agencies such as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the Lahanton Water District, are currently employing a full-court press in the basin to revive ailing wetlands habitat. There are currently no less then eight wetlands restoration projects either in the late planning stages or already under way - including a major project near Tahoe Keys.

"Tahoe Keys is one of the most damaging projects ever to hit this region," said Dave Roberts, the assistant executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. "We're talking about wetlands that once functioned as the most massive water quality treatment at Lake Tahoe. It was, and continues to be, a horrendous environmental mess."

Although there have been major strides in wetlands restoration over the past decade, there has not been nearly enough progress, according to the experts.

"We still run into a lot of people who don't understand," Goldman said. "They tell us 'We have enough wetlands. What we need are more places for people.' We are constantly fighting this public relations battle. And if we do not win, then all the work will be in vain."

Goldman maintains that the public as a whole does not understand the importance of the basin's wetlands system - that it is, according to experts, the very lifeblood of the basin.

"When you talk about wetlands restoration, the thing that most people seem to be concerned about is how many construction trucks will be driving through their neighborhood," Goldman said. "These people tend to be very vociferous. It's difficult to get them to buy into the bigger picture."

The Tahoe Conservancy is currently trying to drum up interest for its latest public meeting, in which it will discuss plans for its restoration project at Cove East, near the Keys.

In that plan, portions of the Upper Truckee and Trout Creek are to be restored to their former channels, which would allow waterways to overflow their banks occasionally to distribute life-sustaining sediments into the meadows, instead of out into the lake.

Called the Upper Truckee River Westside Conservation Project, it was made possible when the state purchased 208 acres at the end of Venice Drive from private developers in 1988 for $4.3 million. Originally earmarked for a 300-unit housing development, the developers were stopped by environmental lawsuits, and finally decided to sell.

Now, the Conservancy is embarking on its ambitious plan to restore the Upper Truckee to its former path, and to rehabilitate the meadows that surround it.

"One of our long-term goals is to build an interpretive center there, similar to what they have created at Taylor Creek," Goldman said. "Taylor Creek has a huge annual visitation; probably one of the biggest tourist spots in the West. I applaud what the Forest Service has done there. Schoolchildren can get a real hands-on experience in nature, and get an idea of what wetlands are, and how things in nature are all connected.

"Raising public awareness is our biggest battle, and we have to win."


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