PHOTO/CLEANUP THE LAKE: Colin West, founder of Clean Up The Lake, holds a tennis ball, a common type of litter found in Lake Tahoe. People throw them for their dogs, who don't always fetch them.

Lake Tahoe is known for its jewel-like beauty and clear water, but for decades, some users have treated the Sierra lake as a big blue trash can.

During the past year, volunteer scuba divers removed more than 25,000 pounds of debris and garbage that lurked beneath the surface close to the lake’s 72 miles of shoreline. The project initially was set to begin in 2020, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The divers practiced their techniques at Donner Lake, where they surfaced with 1,561 pounds of garbage in July 2020. Clean Up the Lake’s Tahoe project began on May 14, 2021.

“There’s accidental trash, and then there’s intentional trash,” said Colin West, founder and executive director of Clean Up the Lake. “Some people may litter very intentionally. Some people really care and understand and some people don’t.”

As dive crews circumnavigated Tahoe, they recovered plenty of plastic bottles, beer cans, water-logged lengths of rope and small boat parts, but also found some unexpected items in the shallows just offshore. The haul included a couple of engagement rings, old Nikon film cameras, entire lamp posts, a few “no littering” signs, lost wallets, cordless home telephones, a Blackberry mobile phone—and massive pieces of boats and engine blocks.

81 dive days; 189 dives

The teams dove on 81 days, tallying up 189 separate dives, using a total of 626 cylinders of compressed air. In all, 136 trained volunteers participated, racking up 6,715 volunteer hours.

“While the dive team has removed many expected and unexpected items along the way, ultimately what we hope people remember is the length that one group of individuals was willing to go to in order to protect their home and their planet,” West said. “In turn, people should ask themselves how they are choosing to contribute to preserving our environment today.”

PHOTO/CLEAN UP THE LAKE: Volunteer divers at Lake Tahoe.

Matt Levitt, Tahoe Blue Vodka founder, said the company’s sponsorship of the project reflects his firm’s commitment to the health of the lake. “The perseverance of the dive team and volunteers who never gave up, and their commitment to continuing clean-up efforts both in Lake Tahoe and other waterways in our region is inspiring,” Levitt said.

Although the litter is trash, it won’t be making its way to the landfill right away.

Trash becomes art

Clean Up The Lake will collaborate with scientific institutions and environmental consultants to study the recovered litter to develop a better understanding of its impact on Lake Tahoe. In addition, the Tahoe Fund, with support from Tahoe Blue Vodka, has commissioned artists to create a sculpture using some of the items recovered from the lake’s depths. Surfaced, a permanent art installation, will be featured at the new Tahoe South Events Center to educate visitors about what lies beneath the picture-postcard surface of Tahoe.

“When we began the fundraising effort for this project, we knew it had the potential to have Incredible impact on the health of Lake Tahoe,” said Allen Biaggi, Tahoe Fund board member. “The Individual and corporate donors that helped make this project happen clearly demonstrated what Lake Tahoe means to them, and that efforts like these are worthwhile.”

More cleanups planned

Clean Up The Lake plans to perform shoreline clean-ups at four lakes this year. The efforts will include intensive monitoring projects at Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake, a circumnavigated clean-up of Fallen Leaf Lake located within the Tahoe basin, and an expansion to the Mammoth Lakes region for the clean-up of June Lake.

“Completing this 72-mile clean-up is a testament to what our team is capable of,” West said. “And we are just getting started.”

MJD Capital Partners and Truckee Tahoe Lumber Company are new project partners for the coming projects, West said. Previous donors, including the Tahoe Fund, Tahoe Blue Vodka, the Nevada Division of State Lands’  Lake Tahoe License Plate program, the Martis Fund, the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, Tahoe Mountain Resorts Foundation, Alpenglobal Capital and others continue to support the group’s efforts.

Clean Up The Lake’s 2022 projects could still use additional funding, West noted, and donations are accepted online.

The Tahoe Fund

The Tahoe Fund is a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 to support environmental improvement projects that restore lake clarity, enhance sustainable recreation, promote healthier forests, improve transportation and inspire greater stewardship of the region. Through the generous support of its donors, the fund has leveraged more than $10 million in private donations to secure more than $60 million in public funds for more than 60 environmental projects. The projects include new sections of the Lake Tahoe Bikeway, restoration of watersheds, removal of aquatic invasive species, forest health projects, new hiking trails, and stewardship programs.

Clean Up The Lake is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to fight back against plastic and all forms of pollution in the global environment, both on land and under the surface, starting with Lake Tahoe and the Cayes in Belize. Its flagship project, the 72 mile Tahoe clean up, is the first ever human-powered circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe using scuba.

The Nevada Division of State Lands/Tahoe License Plates is administered by the Nevada Tahoe Resource Team. Since 1998, the license plate (NV-LTLP) sales and annual renewal fees have been invested in projects that help protect, restore, and enhance Lake Tahoe’s unique natural environment. Projects funded directly through the NV-LTLP program range from water quality initiatives and state park improvements, to research and monitoring studies, invasive species surveys and removal, climate change research, and public education efforts.

To date, the NV-LTLP program has generated over $9 million, funding over 165 preservation and restoration projects on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. Nevadans can help preserve and protect Lake Tahoe by purchasing a Lake Tahoe license plate for $61 with an annual renewal fee of $30. Details are on the State Lands website.

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