No sea snakes, gangsters, but Tahoe garbage divers strike gold

STATELINE, Nevada– They found no sign of a mythical sea monster, no sign of gangsters in cement shoes, or long-lost treasure chests.

But divers who spent a year cleaning up Lake Tahoe’s entire 72 miles (115 kilometers) of shoreline won something they hope will prove far more valuable: tons and tons of trash.

In addition to removing 25,000 pounds (11,339 kilograms) of underwater debris since last May, divers and volunteers have meticulously sorted and logged the debris’ types and GPS locations.

The dozens of dives that ended this week were part of a unique attempt to learn more about the source and potential damage caused by plastics and other pollutants in the fabled alpine lake on the California-Nevada line.

It also took organizers on a journey through the history, folklore and evolution of the Sierra Nevada lake, which contains enough water to cover all of California at a depth of 14 inches (36 centimeters).

The Washoe tribe fished the turquoise Tahoe for centuries before westward expansion in the mid-1800s brought railroads, lumber barons, and eventually Gatsby-like decadence to a playground for the rich and famous.

Tahoe’s first casino was built in 1902 by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who owned much of east Los Angeles and who built the famous Santa Anita Racetrack in 1907. For decades, huge lakefront estates followed, including one used for filming Godfather II.

Cleanup organizers say the most common question locals ask is if they found the remains of gangsters near the north shore. That’s where Frank Sinatra lost his gambling license in the 1960s for allegedly fraternizing with organized crime bosses at his Cal-Neva hotel-casino.

The debris recovered consisted mostly of things like bottles, tires, fishing gear and sunglasses.

But Colin West, founder of environmental nonprofit group Clean Up the Lake, which created the project, said there have been some surprises.

Divers believe they’ve uncovered shipwreck planks near Dead Man’s Point, where tribal tales tell of a Loch Ness Monster-like creature – later named “Tahoe Tessie” – living beneath Cave Rock.

They also found some “No Littering” signs, engine blocks, lampposts, a diamond ring, and “those funny fake plastic owls that sit on boats to scare away birds,” West said.

“It’s shocking to see how much trash has accumulated under such a seemingly pristine lake,” said Matt Levitt, founder and CEO of Tahoe Blue Vodka, which has contributed $100,000 to the cleanup.

Its businesses are among the many — including hotels, casinos and ski resorts — that depend on the more than 15 million people who come each year to enjoy the view that Mark Twain described in 1872’s “Roughing It” as “the most beautiful picture ever.” Earth” described. ”

“It’s our economic engine,” Levitt said.

And while most of the contributors and volunteers were primarily motivated to help beautify the lake, it’s what happens when the garbage is dumped on land that gets the scientists excited.

Coastal cleanups have been taking place across the country for years, from Arizona to the Great Lakes, Pennsylvania and Florida. But this rubbish ends up in wastepaper baskets and rubbish bags for disposal.

Each slice from 189 separate Tahoe dives to depths of 8 meters (25 feet) was mapped via GPS and meticulously categorized including plastic, metal and fabric.

Plastics are crucial as international research increasingly shows that some species can break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics.

Scientists are still investigating the extent and human damage caused by the tiny particles. But the National Academy of Sciences said in December that the US — the world’s largest producer of plastic waste — should cut plastic production because so much ends up in oceans and waterways.

Zoe Harrold, a biochemist, led scientists at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, which first documented microplastics in Tahoe in 2019. She was the lead author of Clean Up the Lake’s 2021 report on a 10-kilometer pilot project.

“If left in place, the progressive degradation of submerged debris, particularly plastic and rubber, will continue to slowly release microplastics and leachate into the azure waters of Lake Tahoe,” Harrold wrote.

The cleanup comes half a century after scientists began measuring Tahoe’s dwindling clarity as the basin began to experience explosive growth.

Most praise or blame the completion of the interstate system for the 1960 Winter Olympics near Tahoe City. It was the first ever televised and introduced the world to the lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks.

From 1960 to 1980, Tahoe’s population grew from 10,000 to 50,000-90,000 in the summer, according to the US Geological Survey. Peak days are now approaching 300,000.

“Most of what we’re getting out of is basically just the result of human influence recreating, living and building a community here in the Lake Tahoe region,” West said.

His group plans dives at other Sierra lakes this year, including June Lake east of Yosemite National Park, and will expand future Tahoe searches to deeper depths.

The nonprofit Tahoe Fund, which also helped raise $100,000 for the cleanup, is commissioning artists to create a sculpture out of Tahoe’s trash at an event center being built in Stateline on the south shore of the lake.

“Our hope is that it inspires greater conservation and reminds those who love Lake Tahoe that it’s up to all of us to care,” said Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund.

About Thelma Wilt

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