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Cleaning Up Tahoe’s Bottom

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Tom Carter, 63, once pulled the engine of a Ford Model T off the floor of Lake Tahoe. He estimated that, between Tahoe Tavern and Crystal Bay (an area that spans 11.5 miles), he has also removed 116 tires, car batteries, chains, pipes, engines, underwater cameras, swim masks, fins, tools, and tennis balls; so many tennis balls.

“People leave trash and they don’t always mean it,” said Carter, explaining that he doesn’t believe the trash that ends up in the lake was put there maliciously. “The tires on the bottom are likely from old dock bumpers and the engines were used as old mooring anchors … and the dog-friendly beaches are filled with tennis balls.”

Carter believes in the importance of keeping Lake Tahoe clean for ourselves, as well as for our visitors. “Visitors don’t come here to look at the sky,” Carter said, half-jokingly.

It all started four years ago when Carter, who is a ski patroller at Mount Rose Ski Tahoe in the winter, and works water sport rentals at Waterman’s Landing in the summer, was stand-up paddle boarding off Sandy Beach Campground in Tahoe Vista and spotted a tire on the lake floor. Without giving it much thought, he dove off his paddleboard to see if he could remove the tire from the bottom of the lake. And, what do you know, he could. Carter maneuvered the tire onto his board, and brought it to shore to properly dispose of. And that was only the start.

“The conditions have to be just right,” said Carter, explaining the best way to search for these tires. There has to be little to no wind so you can see clearly down to the lake’s bottom. “The only way to get these conditions is to go all the time,” he said.

Over the past four years, Carter has developed his own techniques, because, when hunting for trash at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, you never know what you’re going to get. He explained that sometimes the tires are filled with gravel that needs to be removed by hand, and that sometimes the items are too heavy to lift to the surface, even with the assistance of the weight distribution below the surface. Carter typically rolls these larger items along the lake floor all the way to the shore.

Carter, who grew up in Fresno but has lived in Lake Tahoe with his wife Carol since 1992, has always enjoyed being around the water. His mom was a swim instructor growing up and he and his wife try and go on swims every evening, when weather and water temperature permit. Not only does Carter count his ski days, but his swim days as well — typically averaging 100 days of swimming in the calendar year.  

The tires and other trash are typically recycled. But for the bigger ticket items, like car engines, Carter hopes to one day hold an auction and art show in which the proceeds go to charity.

This effort is something anyone can get involved in, even visitors. One day last summer, Carter was assigned to lead a paddleboard tour for a group of guys on a Google work trip that went from Waterman’s Landing in Carnelian Bay to Sand Harbor. Along the way Carter spotted a tire, which turned out to be 40 feet down — his deepest dive to date — and dove for it. The men on the tour were so impressed by what Carter did that the tour turned into not only a paddle to Sand Harbor, but also a hunt for tires. Together, the group removed eight tires from Lake Tahoe in a single day.

 
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October 12, 2017