Leonie Sherman
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The League to Save Lake Tahoe

While COVID-19 cases continue to mount and antiracist protests command global attention, the giant forests, granite domes and alpine lakes of California provide perspective and solace. After months of sheltering in place, many are eager to soothe their souls with some wilderness therapy.
Unfortunately, greedy politicians are already using this historical moment to dismantle environmental protections. The places we love need our protection now more than ever. If a visit to Lake Tahoe is on your post-COVID agenda, rest assured that the League to Save Lake Tahoe has continued to monitor and protect the lake during these uncertain times. They’ve been protecting the lake for over 60 years. Without their hard work there would be a four-lane highway ringing the lake, and close to a million more people living on its shores. If you love Lake Tahoe, you love the League dedicated to protecting it, even if you don’t know them yet.

You probably know their bumper sticker though.  An iconic image of the lake and the words “Keep Tahoe Blue.” The League has distributed over three million of them and they adorn water bottles, bumpers and bear boxes around the world. It’s been translated into three languages. “Keep Tahoe Blue” has become the rallying cry for lake lovers everywhere. But the League to Save Lake Tahoe does so much more than make stickers. 

An image of a large group of Keep Tahoe Blue volunteers.

Every July 5, the League organizes hundreds of volunteers to clean up thousands of pounds of litter from beaches left trashed after Independence Day celebrations.

They got off to a dramatic start in 1957, blocking  the construction of a bridge across Emerald Bay and a four lane highway along the shore as part of a San Francisco-scale development around the lake that would have transformed it into a “city with a hole in the middle.” In the ’70s they put a stop to the practice of dumping sewage into the lake. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s they established stricter requirements for development near the shore, effectively limiting development to lake-friendly projects. The League advocates for lake protection on all levels, which has unlocked more than $2 billion in funding to defend and restore the lake. 

These days their focus has shifted slightly, but their commitment to protecting the lake has not. “The natives called it the lake of the sky. It’s a jewel and needs to be cared for. A lot of people take it for granted,” explains Will Evers, Vice-President of the Board. For Evers, protecting Lake Tahoe is all in the family; his father was a founding member of the League, active in the fight against that four-lane highway, and his childhood summers were spent at the lake. “When I was a kid, I spent my summers swimming all day long. When I used to grab the ladder at the end of the pier there was never any algae on it, just wood. Now it’s covered in algae. The rocks were never slippery, now they are.”

The culprit, of course, is us. ”Lake Tahoe gets 24 million visitors a year, more than the top three national parks combined,”  says Evers. All those visitors arrive in cars. “Traffic is one of our biggest issues right now,” he continues. “The sand they put down in the winter for the snow gets pulverized by the cars and causes lake turbidity.” According to Evers, lake clarity is measured by attaching a white dinner plate to a rope and dropping it over the edge. In 1960 they could still see that plate 100 feet down. These days the plate is visible to less than 63 feet. The League realized that a lot of local workers and tourists were driving a mile or so to get to their jobs and introduced a bike and scooter share program that was wildly popular until the COVID crisis. The League has not figured out post-COVID incentives to reduce traffic. Hopefully they look like Italy, where they are subsidizing the purchase of new bikes, or France, where the government is paying for bike maintenance.

Another huge issue is  development and aquatic invasive species. “The Tahoe Keys, with 1,700 homes densely clustered around a man-made marina, are ground zero for growth,” Evers explains. “The water there is so polluted, even dogs can’t swim in it  because it will make them sick.” Part of the problem is runoff, but exotic weeds contribute to the issues as well. “Every year when they would dredge the marina, bits of these invasive plants would escape and spread throughout the lake,” explains Evers. Those weeds choke out other plants and create a perfect breeding ground for other invasives. The League has come up with an innovative method to prevent the spread of those exotic species. They’ve placed PVC tubes perforated with holes underwater at the entrance to the marinas. When they pump air through the PVC tubes, a curtain of bubbles rises. This technology is used in salmon farming to contain the fish and has worked so well to prevent the spread of invasives that the installation won an award from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency last year.

Keep Tahoe BBLue member with a water sample.

League staff member Emily Griffin collects a water quality sample during Snapshot Day, an annual survey conducted over one-day to assess the health of the Tahoe Basin watershed.

Perhaps the League’s most important recent innovation was bringing Darcie Collins on board as CEO in 2011. Like Evers, Collins has a lifelong connection with Lake Tahoe. She  grew up in the Tahoe basin and was the first intern at the League during her junior year of high school. That experience set her down the career path of bringing scientific knowledge to policy creation. She pursued a graduate degree in Environmental Science and Management and ran a community engagement program at Save the Bay in the San Francisco area for years. But she jumped at the chance to relocate to Tahoe as the League’s CEO.

“When I started working here we were primarily an advocacy group,” explains Collins. “We had a strong policy team, working at the state and local level to address development projects or bring public funding, but a huge disconnect between what we were doing and the general public. Without support from the broader community about lake impacts it’s hard to have a strong program that protects the lake.”

Drawing from her experience with community engagement in the Bay Area, Collins began promoting community beach clean ups, training locals to identify invasive species and monitor runoff. “We started a citizen science program in 2013 called Pipe Keepers, where we  train volunteers to collect stormwater samples,” explains Collins. First they needed to identify every single pipe draining into the lake, and then they assigned volunteers to collect samples of runoff. This helped identify which pipes were bringing more pollution. “Maybe even more importantly, through that program we educated all those volunteers about the impacts of stormwater and runoff,” she continues. “Those folks have gone to local decision makers to pressure them to improve runoff infrastructure and implement better environmental policies to decrease stormwater runoff.”

Two girls monitoring pipes and drains. Keep Tahoe Blue

The League’s Pipe Keepers help protect the Lake from stormwater pollution by monitoring pipes, drains, catchment basins and other infrastructure around the Lake to stop point-sources of pollution.

In addition, the League was able to get the city of South Lake Tahoe to pass a single use plastic bag ban, as well as a ban on styrofoam products a few years ago, thanks largely to community engagement. “We used our beach clean ups to collect data on the types of trash left on beaches,” explains Collins. That data showed that single use plastic bags are a significant portion of beach litter. “We were able to demonstrate the impact to the lake of plastic. Most of the communication with the city council was from our volunteers. It’s so much more impressive when politicians hear from people who are volunteering their time to take care of the lake instead of our staff members.”

The League takes care of their volunteers, and the volunteers take care of the lake, creating a positive feedback loop that Keeps Tahoe Blue. Vesper Rodriguez, a core volunteer who also grew up in Tahoe, got involved with the League’s activities through a class at the community college. “We got to participate in this project called snapshot day, taking water samples from different parts of the basin,” she explains.  “It was so much fun I really wanted to stay involved and volunteer, it was like an opportunity to do community work but have fun at the same time.” Now when friends or family come to visit, she brings them to League clean up events where they can share in the fun too. As community engagement grows, so too does agency over the lake and the desire to preserve it for future generations.

While the Coronavirus has dramatically reduced visitors to Lake Tahoe during the spring of 2020, summer numbers, and the future in general, are unpredictable.  What is predictable is that the League will continue to work with the community to protect the second deepest lake in the country. “We take a pragmatic approach, where enjoyment of the lake today is balanced with preservation of the lake for the future,” Collins says. “We can and should treat this situation as an opportunity to form new environmentally friendly habits by examining what we consume and how we get around.”

A rendering of the proposed bridge that Keep Tahoe Blue was able to stop from happening.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe formed in 1957 to defeat a proposal to build a bridge over Emerald Bay, which was part of a plan to build the Tahoe Basin into an urban center that would have matched San Francisco in size. This is a rendering of the proposed bridge. Photo courtesy of Caltrans

Beautiful satellite image of Lake Tahoe.

A reminder why the League has worked since 1957 to Keep Tahoe Blue

Paddle boarders on Lake Tahoe.

The League’s Eyes on the Lake citizen science program allows people to “protect while they play,” using the Citizen Science Tahoe smartphone app to report sightings of aquatic invasive species while they’re enjoying the Lake

Image of the bubble curtain at Tahoe Keys that Keep Tahoe Blue installed.

The League installed a bubble curtain in the Tahoe Keys — ground zero for the invasive weed infestation in Lake Tahoe — to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive weeds further into Lake Tahoe itself. This earned the League a 2019 Best in Basin award

Al Gore and Bill Clinton on a boat with Keep Tahoe Blue scientists.

The League was instrumental in coordinating the 1997 Tahoe Presidential Forum, attended by President Clinton and Vice President Gore. The national focus opened the door to billions of dollars in funding for Tahoe environmental programs.