STATELINE, Nev. — They found no trace of a mythical sea monster, no sign of gangsters in concrete shoes or long-lost treasure chests.
But divers who spent a year cleaning up the entire 115 miles of Lake Tahoe’s shoreline have gotten away with what they hope will be far more valuable: tons and tons of trash.
In addition to removing 25,000 pounds (11,339 kilograms) of underwater debris since last May, divers and volunteers have meticulously sorted and recorded the species and GPS locations of the trash.
A dozen dives concluded this week were part of a special effort to learn more about the source and possible damage caused by plastic and other pollutants in the legendary mountain lake on the California-Nevada line.
It also took organizers on a journey through the history, folklore, and development of the lake atop the Sierra Nevada that holds enough water to cover all of California 36 inches deep.
The Washoe tribe fished the turquoise-blue Tahoe for centuries before its westward expansion in the mid-1800s brought railroads, timber barons, and eventually Gatsby-esque decadence to what became a playground for the rich and famous.
Tahoe’s first casino was built in 1902 by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who owned much of eastern Los Angeles and made the prominent Santa Anita Horse Track in 1907. For decades, huge lakefront estates followed, including one used for filming “Godfather II.”
Cleanup organizers say one of the things locals are asking the most is if they found any mobster’s remains near the north coast. That’s where Frank Sinatra lost his gaming license for allegedly fraternizing with organized crime bosses at his hotel casino in Cal-Neva in the 1960s.
The recovered debris consisted mainly of bottles, tires, fishing equipment, and sunglasses.
But Colin West, founder of the nonprofit environmental group that launched the Clean Up the Lake project, said there were some surprises.
Divers think they’ve spotted shipwreck shelves near Dead Man’s Point, where tribal tales tell of a Loch-Ness-Monster-like creature — later called “Tahoe Tessie” — that lives beneath Cave Rock.
They’ve also turned up a few “No Waste” signs, engine blocks, lampposts, a diamond ring, and “those funny fake plastic owls that sit on boats to scare birds,” West said.
“It’s shocking to see how much trash has accumulated under what seems like such a pristine lake,” said Matt Levitt, founder, and CEO of Tahoe Blue Vodka, which contributed $100,000 to clean up.
His businesses are one of many — including hotels, casinos, and ski resorts — that depend on the more than 15 million people who flock there annually to enjoy the view that Mark Twain described in 1872 in “Roughing It” as the “most beautiful image that all the earth has to offer”. †
“It’s our economic engine,” Levitt said.
And while most contributors and volunteers were primarily motivated to help beautify the lake, it’s what happens once the trash piles up ashore that excites scientists.
Coastal cleanups have been taking place for years across the country, from Arizona to the Great Lakes, Pennsylvania, and Florida. But that waste goes into trash cans and garbage bags for disposal.
Each stretch of 189 individual Tahoe dives to a depth of 25 feet (8 meters) was mapped by GPS and carefully divided into categories, including plastic, metal, and fabric.
Plastics are critical as international research shows that some species can be broken down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics.
Scientists are still studying the size and human damage of the tiny pieces. But the National Academy of Sciences said in December that the US — the world’s largest producer of plastic waste — needs to cut its production because so much end up in oceans and waterways.
Zoe Harrold, a biochemist, led scientists at the Desert Research Institute in Reno who first documented microplastics in Tahoe in 2019. She was the lead author of the Clean Up the Lake 2021 report on a 10-kilometer pilot project.
“If left in place, the continued degradation of submerged litter, especially plastic, and rubber, will continue to slowly release microplastics and leach into the azure waters of Lake Tahoe,” Harrold wrote.
The cleanup comes half a century after scientists began measuring Tahoe’s declining brightness as the basin began to experience explosive growth.
Most credit, or blame, the completion of the interstate system for the 1960 Winter Olympics near Tahoe City. The first television broadcast introduced the world to the lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
From 1960 to 1980, Tahoe’s population grew from 10,000 to 50,000 – 90,000 in the summer, according to the US Geological Survey. Peak days are now approaching 300,000.
“Most of what we get out of it is a result of really just the human impact of recreating, living, and building a community here in the Lake Tahoe region,” West said.
His group plans are diving into other Sierra lakes this year, including June Lake east of Yosemite National Park, and will expand future Tahoe searches to deeper depths.
The nonprofit Tahoe Fund, which also helped raise $100,000 for the cleanup, is commissioning artists to create a sculpture from Tahoe’s trash at an event center built in Stateline on the lake’s south shore.
“We hope it will inspire greater environmental stewardship and remind those who love Lake Tahoe that it’s up to all of us to take care of it,” said Amy Berry, CEO of Tahoe Fund.