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How bulldozing a closed Motel 6 could help improve Lake Tahoe’s water clarity

Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter. I'm Amy Alonzo, the environment reporter for The Indy.

Lake Tahoe is famous for its clarity. But it used to be much, much clearer. 

The lake’s sparkling blue water was losing its famed clarity at around a foot per year until mitigation measures were implemented to halt the decline. The ultimate goal is to restore clarity, including by rehabilitating wetlands that serve as natural filters for sediment that flows toward the lake. 

Last month’s acquisition by the California Tahoe Conservancy of a parcel of land considered an integral part of wetland restoration is a conservation story with some clear winners — the lake and its wildlife — and no real losers. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email tips to me at [email protected]. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.

The under-restoration Upper Truckee River Marsh adjacent to the Motel 6 property. (Courtesy California Tahoe Conservancy)

The Upper Truckee River meanders through dense conifer forest and moist sphagnum bogs on its 21-mile journey from its headwaters near Red Lake Peak on Carson Pass down to Lake Tahoe.

Along the way, the river passes through a century’s worth of development — golf courses, parking lots, restaurants and motels — on land that used to serve as the river’s floodplain.

The Upper Truckee River Watershed is the largest contributor of freshwater to Lake Tahoe. Spanning from Carson Pass to just across the Nevada border south of Highway 50, the watershed drains one third of the basin around Lake Tahoe.

But as development increased and wetlands and floodplains disappeared, the lake’s water got murkier.  

Floodplains act as natural filters, reducing the amount of pollutants that flow downstream. With fewer floodplains, more fine sediment and nutrients began flowing in, and the lake’s clarity declined from more than 130 feet in the 1960s to a low point of 60 feet in 2017.

State and federal agencies and conservation groups have worked together for decades to reverse significant declines in the lake’s clarity, brought on by variables ranging from algae to fine sediment from urban runoff to river bank erosion. Part of that effort is restoring the Upper Truckee River Watershed to reduce sediment flow into the lake.

In late March, the California Tahoe Conservancy — a California state agency that partnered with a long list of other agencies and conservation nonprofits — purchased 31 acres of land flanking the Upper Truckee River near Highway 50. Once a healthy wetland, the property is paved with asphalt, housing a defunct Motel 6 and a long-shuttered restaurant. 

During the next several years, the buildings will be razed, the asphalt removed and the wetland restored, connecting 560 acres of the Upper Truckee Marsh on the shores of Lake Tahoe to 206-acre Johnson Meadow across Highway 50 to the south.

It’s all part of a bigger effort to restore the lake’s clarity by reclaiming habitat around the 9 miles of the river closest to Lake Tahoe, an area that has seen heavy development.

“It really is this missing piece of this much, much bigger effort,” said Stuart Roll, watershed program supervisor for the conservancy.  

Restoration of the Motel 6 property, and beyond

Motel 6 may leave the light on for you and serve as a great road trip stopover point, but the budget motel doesn’t function well for sifting sediment out of the Truckee River.

Built in the 1970s, South Lake Tahoe’s Motel 6, adjacent restaurant and parking lot sit on 4 acres of former floodplain, part of the 31-acre site purchased by the conservancy.  

“It just sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s so clearly within the floodplain,” Roll said.  

Acquisition of the land was a multi-decade goal, requiring more than $15 million in funding from various entities.

With the land’s purchase, 96 percent of the Upper Truckee River is under public ownership. But it will take many more years and millions more dollars to restore its watershed.

Demolition of the motel and restaurant building is expected to start in 2025. Before restoration work can begin, 8 feet of fill dirt that was added to the site before the motel’s construction must be removed.

Once cleared, it will take several more years for vegetation to fill back in.

Wetlands or development?

Officials say the Tahoe Basin has lost more than half of its wetlands to development in the last century, contributing to Lake Tahoe’s declining clarity.

Once measuring well over 100 feet, by 1982, its clarity was measured down to depths of less than 80 feet, and by the late 1990s, it was less than 70 feet. By 2017, its clarity was measured down to a depth of just 60 feet. 

While each of Lake Tahoe’s 63 watersheds contribute fine sediment to the lake, about 20 percent going into the lake comes from the banks of the Upper Truckee River and Blackwood Creek near Tahoe City.

The Upper Truckee River deposits roughly 16 dump trucks worth of sediment into the lake each year, partially because of development along the river.

Much of the land in the Lake Tahoe Basin is challenging, if not impossible, to build on. The steep, rocky hillsides lend themselves to hiking trails rather than housing developments.

Prior to a broader understanding of the environmental impacts of development, the basin’s limited marshes, wetlands and other flat lands made for ideal building sites.

That includes construction of the Tahoe Keys, a subdivision created in the 1960s by excavating lagoons for boating and capping soil with sand to form stable building sites, which destroyed half of the once 1,600-acre Upper Truckee Marsh. 

The man-made waterways surrounding 1,500 residential properties scattered throughout the community have since been plagued by invasive aquatic species flourishing in the warm, stagnant water.

Further upstream, construction of the Lake Tahoe Airport in the late 1950s covered hundreds of acres of meadows.

Development in the basin is coupled with more people visiting and living on the lake. The population of the basin was around 13,000 in 1970; by 2020, there were nearly 56,000 residents. The Tahoe Basin now draws about 15 million visitors per year.

That growth means less undeveloped land to naturally filter runoff heading into Big Blue. 

“Is [wetland restoration] going to be the thing that suddenly gets us to 100 feet of clarity? Probably not. But it’s something that keeps it from declining more,” said Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer with the League to Save Lake Tahoe. 

The short-term goal, dubbed the “Clarity Challenge,” is to restore the lake’s clarity to at least 78 feet by the end of 2031. The long-term goal is to restore clarity up to 97 feet.

The easiest-to-implement measures to reduce sediment flowing into the lake have already been taken, Patterson said, including constructing infiltration basins between developments and the lake and using street sweepers.

“It’s going to take a lot more than wetland restoration, but restoring these wetlands is really a key element,” Roll said. “It’s part of the bigger strategy.” 

A map of land acquired by the California Tahoe Conservancy and surrounding restoration projects. (Courtesy California Tahoe Conservancy)

What’s next

Ultimately, the goal in the Upper Truckee River Watershed is to restore 1,000 acres of wetland and more than 9 miles of river corridor, Roll said. About 300 acres have been restored thus far, including portions of the Upper Truckee Marsh and an upstream river channel that was restored by the U.S. Forest Service. 

The conservancy has identified a wish list of 10 major projects that would have the most impact on watershed health.

But many of the wish-list projects, including restoration of Johnson Meadow and rehabilitation of land around the Lake Tahoe Golf Course at Lake Valley State Park Recreation Area are in their infancy and have far to go or are bogged down by lawsuits and red tape. 

Johnson Meadow, which borders the Motel 6 property to the south, was the largest privately owned meadow in the Lake Tahoe Basin until Tahoe Resource Conservation District acquired the property in 2018. Once used as a dairy farm and seasonal grazing pasture, marshes and wetlands were dredged and filled to create a canal system that prevented the meadow from flooding and filtering sediment from the water. Now, the river’s channel is so oversized that the river rarely leaves its banks, drying out the meadow.

Restoration work, including erosion control, recreating wandering channels, planting native grasses and installing boardwalks, is estimated to take about 10 years.

At the golf course, the river was straightened prior to the course’s construction, increasing erosion along its banks. The floodplain now sits several feet above the river and rarely floods, and the river continues to erode its banks — a problem California State Parks has grappled with for decades. 

In 2022, California State Parks proposed reconfiguring the 135-acre golf course to create a greater buffer between the river and the course.

That proposal was scrapped — as many others have been over the decades — and California State Parks is rescoping the project. The newest iteration will involve leaving most of the golf course alone,focusing on the holes closest to the river, according to Rich Adams, California State Parks natural resources manager for the Sierra District. 

“It’s complicated with so many different land owners and the history of modifications of the river,” he said.

The Tahoe Keys and the Upper Truckee Marsh, Tahoe’s largest wetland. In the 1960s, the development was built on half of the wetland; the other half is being restored. (Courtesy California Tahoe Conservancy)

Here’s what else I’m reading this week: 

Excellent storytelling from the Nevada Current about a local effort to save Ash Meadows from lithium exploration. 

A new study breaks down where Colorado’s water is going — beef, anyone? — and it’s worth reading about in the Los Angeles Times.

A U.S. District Court judge sided with wild horse advocates in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management. More from the Associated Press

Public land managers continue to take no action a decade after the Bundy standoff in Southern Nevada, E&E News reports. 


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