By SAGE SAUERBREY & BECCA LOUX | Moonshine Ink
The Lake Tahoe/Truckee region is everything it’s cracked up to be when viewed through a wide-angle lens: a pristine mountain sanctuary, the granite muse of Muir and Twain. But, what’s that I see hiding in a crack in the boulders, floating in a Truckee River eddy, and stuffed under a manzanita branch? A moldy cigarette butt. A crumpled Coors can. Some toilet paper — used.
For local photographer Court Leve, the last plastic straw to break the camel’s back was actually a filthy Gatorade bottle held in the mouth of his young puppy bounding back from a swim in the Truckee River.
“I started taking out a trash bag and cleaning up,” Leve said. “I’ve literally cleaned up everything from used condoms to diapers stuck in the bushes … beer bottles, cigarette butts, you name it. And it’s not just in one spot, it’s unfortunately everywhere you go.”
Leve began tracking down the jurisdictions and businesses responsible for managing the region’s ubiquitous trash problem, but after months of dissatisfying answers, redirects, and an inability to track down the right landowners, he resorted to social media to call out the issue. It wasn’t until the high-profile Truckee Tahoe Litter Group he created on Facebook turned some heads that on Aug. 6 a group of representatives met at Secline Beach to discuss solutions. The location was strategically chosen, as three out of the four different agencies represented at the meeting (California State Parks, The California Tahoe Conservancy, NTPUD, and Placer County) all manage different small plots of land within a few hundred yards radius of the sand where the meeting took place.
Aside from Secline Beach being adequately cleaned up, the primary purpose of the meeting was to highlight the key obstacles the region faces in dealing with trash — a lack of communication between responsible entities, overlapping jurisdictions, red tape for nonprofit efforts, understaffing, and the broader cultural responsibility to reduce litter in the first place.
THE SCOPE OF THIS SMELLY SCOOP
This August, two different research groups — entirely unaware of each other’s projects — both released some disturbing news: Microplastics now have a distinct presence in Lake Tahoe.
Microplastics, which UC Davis researcher Katie Seft says are defined as any plastic polymer roughly smaller than a grain of rice, were found on all of the four Tahoe beaches sampled by Seft and her team of volunteers, as well as in water samples taken in a separate study by the Desert Research Institute. The disturbing part, according to Seft, is that while most microplastics enter ecosystems through wastewater systems, all of the wastewater created in Tahoe is dumped outside the basin. This means that the microplastics found by Seft and the DRI have one primary source.
“It’s trash. I believe it’s primarily trash that’s polluting the lake,” Seft said. She says there is a silver lining to this finding however. Whereas microplastics from wastewater are very difficult to mitigate, stopping litter at the source is an attainable goal. “If you pick up one plastic bottle off the beach you’re saving potentially hundreds of thousands of pieces of microplastic from getting into the lake that we don’t currently have the technology to remove.”
The final results of both the UC Davis and DRI studies are slated to be released sometime in October, according to Seft.
“I think this microplastics study, although preliminary, is opening people’s eyes,” said Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “They’re like, ‘Wait a minute, what? One of the most beautiful, protected places on earth has plastic in it? How the heck did that happen?’”
It happened one piece of single-use plastic at a time. In a Fifth of July cleanup sponsored by the League, volunteers picked up over 1,240 pounds of trash, including 9,276 pieces of plastic along the most heavily trafficked 10 miles of the lake’s 72-mile shoreline. Since 2014, when the League started collecting data, these cleanups have picked up 34,194 pounds of trash and 128,830 pieces of plastic.
WHERE DID ALL THIS CRAP COME FROM?
With cleanups like the League’s directly corresponding with Tahoe’s peak tourist time, it would be easy to point to visitors as the singular source of the problem — look at what overtourism has done to other parts of the world (see sidebar). In reality though, the root of the matter is not just overtourism, but overuse in general.
Amy Berry, Tahoe Fund CEO, has been working as a lead on the collaborative effort, Take Care Tahoe, to educate not just visitors, but everyone on best practices for living in and visiting Truckee/Tahoe. One of the first phases of the initiative six years ago involved collecting data on the emotional and physical ways visitors and locals interact with the region.
“The reason we don’t call out the tourists for this is that from the research [Take Care Tahoe] did, it’s everyone,” Berry said. Along with many others interviewed by Moonshine Ink, Berry claims a large amount of residential trash is routinely dropped in public (Peter Kraatz, Placer County deputy director of public works, cited that household trash dumped illegally accounts for about half of the overall trash problem he sees in some parts of North Lake Tahoe). Berry does add, however, that peak visitor seasons put the region’s waste infrastructure far beyond carrying capacity.
“Education goes a long way, cultural norms are going to go a long way, and the really simple thing is we just need more garbage cans,” Berry said.
To give an idea of the strain the region sees each year, consider that according to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Tahoe Basin has a full-time population of 68,000 people, yet sees more than 10 million visitor vehicle trips annually, according to data collected by the Tahoe Transportation District. TTD data from 2014 also estimated that the average daily population in Tahoe is four times the residential population, with the region playing host to up to 11.8 million visitors in the month of July alone. Another unsavory yet valuable metric for determining seasonal population growth is sewage volume. According to the 2016 Regional Housing Study, the Truckee/North Lake Tahoe region alone increases its sewage volume by 70% between its shoulder and peak seasons. While the sewage system was designed to handle these large fluctuations, for reasons we will dive into in the following pages, trash collection is struggling to keep up.
PICKING UP TRASH: NOT AS EASY AS YOU MIGHT THINK
When Placer County first completed its commercial core improvements to Kings Beach two years ago they also provided trash receptacles with a weekly service agreement with Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal (TTSD), but according to Placer County Deputy Director of Public Works Peter Kraatz, they soon found themselves outpaced.
“We quickly learned that once a week pickup was not enough,” Kraatz said. “So we went to twice a week … and even on big weekends in the summer that’s not enough.”
One of the places in which this overwhelming input of trash was very evident over the past few summers was Secline Beach, the small, undeveloped public beach on the backside of the TransAm North Tahoe Station in Kings Beach where the Aug. 6
meeting took place. The east side of the road leading to the beach is owned by North Tahoe Public Utility District; the west side is owned by the California Tahoe Conservancy and managed by California State Parks, and Placer County manages the aforementioned trash cans near the beach along Highway 89.
“We do the best we can, but there’s still going to be confusion on who owns what,” Shawn Butler of the California Tahoe Conservancy said, talking not only of Secline but of the many complex landholdings along Tahoe that have a similar situation.
“[Secline Beach] is kind of a small example of the much bigger regional picture … of the amount of tourism that happens during summertime periods and how the different agencies keep up with keeping the place clean,” Kraatz said. “I think another layer to this is how things get paid for.”
Kraatz said that in the case of Kings Beach, the trash collection is paid for by property tax in the form of a Benefit Assessment District. This district consists of about $160,000 a year and the majority is typically allocated to snow removal, so the funds available for trash collection are limited.
As of now, although many have pointed to an increased use of Short-Term Rentals (STRs) as being linked to rising trash heaps, no Transient Occupancy Tax monies from renters are directly allocated to trash collection in Placer County. A portion of TOT funds do make their way into the county’s general fund however, which is sometimes used for trash services.
“We know that visitation is going up in the area; it’s going up every year,” said Matthew Green, Sierra District Superintendent for California State Parks, adding that the impact of STRs is “essential data that we need to look at.”
Green also echoed Kraatz’s comments on the difficulty of deciding where to direct funding, and said that waste management is one of California State Parks’ largest costs. He said that while he has beta tested adding more trash cans, they simply end up filled with more residential and household trash.
“Where do you put that money into? Do you put out more trash cans like we’ve done in the past, and you have more items from the general community that end up there?” Green asked. “Or … do put your time and money into patrolling and fixing Kings Beach and the pier or the Vikingsholm down in Emerald Bay or Ehrman Mansion?”
On the other side of the funding coin is another typical Tahoe roadblock, and one almost all the representatives at the Secline meeting mentioned: staffing. NTPUD, one of the landowners with a stake in Secline, had six summer positions that went unfilled this season. Kraatz thinks that even if Placer found the funds to pay for increased pickup times with TTSD, the district might not be able to accommodate the extra workload. Green also cited understaffing as a primary problem.
Beyond the landowners and public agencies, some individuals have taken it upon themselves to directly stem the tide of litter in our region, a goal that comes with its own unique set of obstacles.
Colin West, a local filmmaker, diver, and owner of WineRam productions in Tahoe City, was about one year into setting up a nonprofit to clean up plastic waste in Belize when he realized that Tahoe had its own serious litter problem — it was just hidden beneath the surface.
“Every single time I dive I can find trash that’s been decomposing for 10 to 20 years down there, and we’re pulling up about 10 to 20 pounds of trash every time we go out there with two people,” said West.
After witnessing the scope of the issue at home, West moved to expand his nonprofit to Tahoe under the name Clean Up The Lake. He began calling landowners and asking about permits for local cleanup efforts, only to find that in many cases it took multiple phone calls and sometimes months to find out who owned the land and whether or not he could clean up there. West says when he was first investigating the possibility of diving-oriented cleanups, it took him a month and a half just to track down who owns the rights to the water in Lake Tahoe. But why does he need this information in the first place?
“It just comes down to liability,” West said. In order to host a cleanup effort somewhere, he would need to know the extent of liability protection required by the landowner and fulfill that requirement. This doesn’t sound too bad until West mentions that most cleanups involve many different landowners in a small area — think Secline — all requiring different levels of liability protection. For example, when he asked the forest service for permission to host a cleanup on its property, he says they didn’t require any formal permits at all and simply said “Come on down and clean up, we appreciate it.” The Nevada Division of State Lands (which owns the rights to the water in Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side, in case you were wondering), on the other hand, requires a month-long application period while sending the application out for comment to multiple other state agencies.
One of West’s visions for Clean Up The Lake is to eventually have a working relationship with landowners and the point people at agencies across the region in order to streamline short-term-notice cleanups.
“[It’s about] relationship development, awareness of the issue, and getting people on board with that,” said West. “Even if that means me getting kind of on a first-name basis with these people where they see my email and it’s not one of 20 random emails that arrive into their account every day. They’re like, ‘Oh it’s Colin, he’s probably trying to get a cleanup going stat.’”
Looking forward, Clean Up The Lake announced plans this September for a 72-mile underwater dive cleanup along the entirety of Lake Tahoe’s shoreline, during which the team will also map out problem areas. The dives are slated for next spring, and West feels confident that his nonprofit is well poised to make it happen.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve got every contact and permit that I need to do this cleanup on the entire Nevada side,” West said. “This fall and winter I’m going to approach California.”
THE OPTIMISTIC PART
Although it seems to be increasing in volume, trash is not a new issue in the Tahoe/Truckee region. In fact, West says he regularly finds Coors cans floating in the crystal clear blue waters of Tahoe that are up to 50 to 80 years old. Because of this there have been people working to clean up the region for years, and although many systemic obstacles exist, in a rare moment in journalism, every single source Moonshine Ink spoke to shared the exact same perspective — they all want to clean up the trash.
While local governments navigate the issues of communication, staffing, and funding, many other groups and individuals (see Cleaning up Tahoe’s Bottom, online) are working to pick up the pieces in Tahoe/Truckee.
“There’s no one entity looking out for all of Tahoe, it’s all of us,” said Patterson at the League, which has been working on this issue since its inception in 1957. He adds that the solution is to not only stem the flow, but ideally to stop it entirely. Picking up trash — whether it’s the League, Clean Up The Lake, the newly launched Truckee Litter Corps monthly volunteer cleanup, an off-work public employee, or TTSD — is currently a necessary burden to living where we do but it is also an end-of-pipe control, meaning it treats the effects and not the cause.
“We’re doing the cleanups to put ourselves out of work,” Patterson said. “We want to get data, implement solutions and then one day hopefully not have to do the cleanups.”
The Take Care Tahoe campaign has been working toward a similar goal, yet taking a different tack, for the last six years. Berry says they discovered two things when designing the campaign, that people will be less likely to litter when they feel a connection to a place, and that judgmental campaigns typically turn people off. In addition to the campaign’s humorous signage — with messages like “Don’t be a tosser,” and “Hide trash here, please” posted at local bear boxes — Berry has been working on adding an educational opportunity to takecaretahoe.org by directing visitors to learning centers and educational events.
“We were trying to solve the problem [that] we weren’t giving people the information they were looking for, and then we were complaining that they weren’t doing what we wanted them to do,” Berry said.
On the public agency side of things, the conversation continues. According to Court Leve, all the members at the Secline meeting expressed an honest and ardent desire to take care of the growing problem, and left the meeting with the promise of establishing of a working group to those ends. Green at California State Parks says he is optimistic about the talks moving forward not just with the other landowners, but with the surrounding community — from the nearby restaurant owners to local social media groups.
“Sometimes there’s some extra focus on the public sector to find that single source solution,” Green said.
“I think that it’s really important for us as the public sector to communicate with our friends and partners in the private sector so we can take this group and find a solution that just doesn’t focus on one group, or one item, or one task.”
Lesson From a Sister Tourist Community: Don’t Be a Geek, Pack Your Trash
This is a story about successfully getting people to take trashy action. According to the official website, the story of the Santa Cruz Pack Your Trash campaign begins in the early 1960s. The Pleasure Point Surf Association started placing trash bins near beach areas to encourage everyone’s help with the beach litter situation that was a persistent problem at the time. This was one of California’s earliest environmental campaigns and it also included a number of organized beach cleanups and even a Keep Your Beaches Clean float in the annual Miss California parade that was held in Santa Cruz at the time.
The phrase “Pack Your Trash” emerged a decade later under (now world famous) surf artist Jim Phillips, who was a resident of the Pleasure Point area.
Phillips used his considerable talent as an artist to make the original Pack Your Trash posters depicting a “Geek” carelessly tossing a soda bottle and missing the trash bin. The rest is history, as they say, because the phrase has become ubiquitous around the Santa Cruz area, parts of Hawaii, and elsewhere.
~ Matt Niswonger, Santa Cruz
~ What lessons do you think, Tahoe/Truckee, can we learn from another beloved tourist spot? Email email@example.com with your thoughts.
A Broader Lens on Overtourism
When every source Moonshine Ink spoke with agreed that Tahoe is strained to a breaking point during peak seasons, especially considering trash management, it brought up a phrase that is becoming ever more common in today’s world: overtourism. The World Tourism Organization defines overtourism as “the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitor experiences in a negative way.”
The Truckee/Tahoe region has seen the effects of overtourism not just in waste management, but in traffic during peak seasons, noise complaints in residential areas, wildfire evacuation risks (see our last print issue), and even in the local housing market. Over the years, Moonshine Ink has reported on all these issues and their connection to our tourist economy in depth.
These impacts of overtourism are not unique to Tahoe. Yosemite, for example, was inundated with about 27 tons of trash during the government shutdown this year, according to Quartz. Globally, United Nations data from 2016 estimated that 4.8 million tons, 14% of all solid waste created around the world, is produced each year solely by tourists. In Barcelona, the recently dubbed “most polluted port in Europe,” the mayor made a controversial pledge this July to reduce tourist numbers by cutting cruise visits and airport expansion. And, if you’ve ever swam in the ocean at the island paradise of Bali you know that plastic trash clinging to every inch of your body is unavoidable.
Trash follows tourism. That being said, in our research for this article, Moonshine Ink found that a substantial amount of litter is also being created by residents — making this not simply a question of overtourism, but also “over capacity.” According to Matthew Green, California State Parks superintendent, the parks along the north and west sides of Lake Tahoe see 600,000 to 900,000 visitors a year. For reference, the entire population of the Tahoe Basin is about 68,000.
For local activists like Amy Berry at the Tahoe Fund and Jesse Patterson at the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the solutions lie in anticipation and education. Berry says simply preparing for the onslaught and implementing strategies like handing out trash bags at Commons Beach on the Fourth of July has had a marked impact on trash reduction. Education can go even further, she says, citing that when people feel connected to a place they are less likely to trash it.
Patterson has even seen the trend move in the opposite direction. In the Citizen Science program introduced by the League last year, a resource for volunteers to collect data to assist with conservation efforts, they found that over 25% of the data being submitted through the program was coming from people who live more than four hours away from the lake. For Patterson and the folks at the League this trend has given rise to a new word: “voluntourism.”
Tahoe, Let’s #TrashTag
Alright Truckee/Tahoe, we know that you love hashtags and hate trash, so we have a little contest for you. You know those Bosley hair care commercials that show before and after photos of a previously bald guy suddenly sporting a seriously sexy Fabio flow? Well, this is like that, but with trash.
The #trashtag hashtag, which started off in Guatemala paired with the tag #basurachallenge, has inspired thousands to post photos showing the before-and-after of a trash cleanup they completed. The tag has taken off around the world and we figured it’s a nice-looking bandwagon to ride on. Plus, we have a bit of a competitive streak and love any chance to showcase Tahoe’s activism.
Next time you clean up trash in one of your favorite spots around Truckee/Tahoe, take before and after photos to share on Instagram, Facebook, whatever … with the tag #trashtag (don’t forget to tag @moonshineink so we can see all of your hard work!). If we see enough action — and we’ll be very disappointed with all of you if we don’t — we’ll post the photos in our next edition and send prizes to those featured. Also, because we like to walk the talk, every employee at Moonshine Ink will match submissions with their own #trashtag photos. Make us proud!