Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is still known for its clear water, but that almost was not the case. For 40 years, development threatened to spoil the clarity for which the lake was known—until local and Congressional-level action halted the decline. (©topseller/Shutterstock)

Lake Tahoe: A Clear Wonder

By Chaco Mohler on 03/10/16, updated 03/14/16
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Lake Tahoe’s water is so clear it takes your breath away. On a calm day, a boat on its surface appears to be floating in mid-air. Huge granite boulders are visible 30, 50, even 70 feet below.

Tahoe is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, but lately it’s also being recognized as a human wonder. Efforts by people from all walks of life—across political and state lines, from locals to presidents—have halted the lake’s four-decade decline in water clarity. Together, they are working to “Keep Tahoe Blue.”

For 40 years, researchers had recorded a steady decline of 1 foot per year in the lake’s clarity. In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that set in motion large-scale restoration of Tahoe’s major watersheds a process supported by Congress in 2001 with the passing of Lake Tahoe Restoration Act. Ten years later, signs of a slowdown in the decline began to appear. Only in the last few years, however, have scientists felt confident enough to confirm that Tahoe’s clarity has been stabilized.

Lake Tahoe

In the 1960s, researchers began to document the steady decline in Lake Tahoe’s clarity. Tahoe was fast becoming “America’s Year-Round Playground” as the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley spurred a local real estate boom. Vacation home and resort construction was, at times, done with little concern for preserving wetlands and watersheds. In 1968, scientists began to measure the lake’s clarity using a small, white plate lowered into Tahoe’s depths, a method still used today. At that time, visibility was measured at more than 100 feet.

In 1969, Congress created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, beginning the regulation of construction across the basin’s two states. It marked the start of a contentious few decades with developers and environmentalists squaring off, and homeowners often squeezed between. Because of the continuing research of University of California Davis scientists and the Keep Tahoe Blue stickers of the League to Save Lake Tahoe (seen on car bumpers throughout the nation), Tahoe’s continually declining water clarity stayed in the public’s consciousness.

The tide seemed to change for Tahoe in the 1990s when everyone seemed to recognize that saving this remarkable natural wonder was good for everyone—businesspeople, residents and environmentalists. Senators from both parties urged Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to visit the area in 1997 and to sign an executive order making the lake’s preservation a national priority. Funding for Tahoe restoration since has largely come from the sale of federal desert lands in Southern Nevada.

The year of that presidential visit marked the lowest clarity reading in Tahoe’s history: 64.1 feet. Five years later in 2003, clarity had increased by almost 14 feet to 78 feet. In 2014, the clarity level reached 77.8 feet. Though clarity moves up and down annually, affected by, among other things, changing annual precipitation, a decade and a half of watershed restoration has effectively stabilized the decline. The most optimistic of scientists believe our actions might even reverse the decades of decline.

Man’s efforts are helped by Tahoe’s relatively small watershed and the area’s abundant erosion-resistant granite rock. Though Lake Tahoe could face more challenges to its pristine waters, including climate change, research and restoration experts are continuing their work protecting this national treasure.

At more than 1,600 feet deep, Tahoe has more water than all the man-made reservoirs in America combined. Now this massive alpine lake might also become a symbol of something even more powerful: man’s ability to help nature heal herself.

Stroll along its shore, take a cruise across its expansive blue surface, paddle its coves or take a plunge into its clear, cool waters. Memories of this beautiful, pristine place will be ones you’ll carry with you through the years.

Related: Things to Do in Lake Tahoe in Summer and Fall and Things to Do in Lake Tahoe in Winter