A beautiful lake 6,200 ft (1,891 m) high in the Sierra Nevada, straddling the California-Nevada state line, Lake Tahoe is a jewel to both nature-lovers and developers. It is the tenth deepest lake in the world, with a maximum depth of 1,600 ft (488 m) and a total volume of 37 trillion gallons. At the south end of the lake sits a dam that supplies up to six feet of Lake Tahoe's water flow into the outlet of the Truckee River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation controls water diversion into the Truckee, which is used for irrigation , power, and recreational purposes throughout Nevada.
Tahoe and Crater Lake are the only two large alpine lakes remaining in the United States. Visitors have expressed their awe of the lake's beauty since it was discovered by General John Frémont in 1844. Mark Twain wrote that it was "the fairest sight the whole Earth affords."
The arrival of Europeans in the Tahoe area was quickly followed by environmental devastation. Between 1870 and 1900, forests around the lake were heavily logged to provide timber for the mine shafts of the Comstock Lode. While this logging dramatically altered the area's appearance for years, the natural environment eventually recovered and no long-term logging-related damage to the lake can now be detected.
The same can not be said for a later assault on the lake's environment. Shortly after World War II, people began moving into the area to take advantage of the region's natural wonders—the lake itself and superb snow skiing—as well as the young casino business on the Nevada side of the lake. The 1960 Winter Olympics, held at Squaw Valley, placed Tahoe's recreational assets in the international spotlight. Lakeside population grew from about 20,000 in 1960 to more than 65,000 today, with an estimated tourist population of 22 million annually.
The impact of this rapid population growth soon became apparent in the lake itself. Early records showed that the lake was once clear enough to allow visibility to a depth of about 130 ft (40 m). By the late 1960s, that figure had dropped to about 100 ft (30 m).
Tahoe is now undergoing eutrophication at a fairly rapid rate. Algal growth is being encouraged by sewage and fertilizer produced by human activities. Much of the area's natural pollution controls, such as trees and plants, have been removed to make room for residential and commercial development. The lack of significant flow into and out of the lake also contributes to a favorable environment for algal growth.
Efforts to protect the pristine beauty of Lake Tahoe go back at least to 1912. Three efforts were made during that decade to have the lake declared a national park , but all failed. By 1958, concerned conservationists had formed the Lake Tahoe Area Council to "promote the preservation and long-range development of the Lake Tahoe basin." The Council was followed by other organizations with similar objectives, the League to Save Lake Tahoe among them.
An important step in resolving the conflict between preservationists and developers occurred in 1969 with the creation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA). The agency was the first and only land use commission with authority in more than one state. It consisted of fourteen members, seven appointed by each of the governors of the two states involved, California and Nevada. For more than a decade, the agency attempted to write a land-use plan that would be acceptable to both sides of the dispute. The conflict became more complex when the California Attorney General, John Van de Kamp, filed suit in 1985 to prevent TRPA from granting any further permits for development. Developers were outraged but lost all of their court appeals.
By 2000, the strain of tourism, development, and non-point automobile pollution was having a visible impact on Lake Tahoe's legendary deep blue surface. A study released by the University of California—Davis and the University of Nevada—Reno reported that visibility in the lake had decreased to 70 ft (21 m), an average decline of a foot a year since the 1960s. As part of a renewed effort to reverse Tahoe's environmental decline, President Clinton signed the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act into law in late 2000, authorizing $300 million towards restoration of water quality in Lake Tahoe over a period of 10 years.
[David E. Newton and Paula Anne Ford-Martin ]
Strong, Douglas. Tahoe: From Timber Barons to Ecologists. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1999.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service. Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. [cited July 8, 2002]. <http://www.r5.fs.fed.us/ltbmu>.
University of California-Davis. Tahoe Research Group. [cited July 8, 2002]. <http://trg.ucdavis.edu/default.html>.