UC DAVIS (US) — Lake Tahoe’s clarity improved in 2012 for the second year in a row, and its waters were the clearest in 10 years, a new study reports.
As reported in this year’s State of the Lake report, last year’s average annual clarity level was 75.3 feet, or a 6.4-foot improvement from 2011. The lake’s clarity is measured by the depth at which a 10″ white disk, called a Secchi disk, remains visible when lowered beneath the water’s surface. The measurements have been taken since 1968, when the Secchi disk could be seen down to an average of 102.4 feet.
The annual clarity level is the average of 22 individual readings taken throughout the year. The highest individual value recorded in 2012 was 107 feet, and the lowest was 57 feet.
Researchers provided measurements for last year’s winter (December–March) and summer (June–September) months. Winter clarity last year continued a long-term pattern of improvement, with the best clarity since 1996. The winter average of 88.3 feet in 2012 was well above the worst point seen in 1997 and a combined 12-foot improvement for the past two years.
At 64.4 feet, summer clarity improved 13 feet from the 2011 value, but the persistent trend is still one of declining summer clarity, researchers say.
“The improvement we see in both the summer and winter clarity during 2012 is very encouraging,” says Geoffrey Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center at University of California, Davis.
“The lake will continue to be subjected to a range of disturbances, each of which has the potential to impact clarity. There is now growing belief that managing for clarity is possible.”
The rate of decline for average annual clarity in the past decade has been better than in recent decades. In 1997-1998, annual clarity reached an all-time average low of 65.1 feet. This year’s value is an improvement of more than 10 feet on that period, but still 22 feet short of the clarity restoration target of 97.4 feet set by federal and state regulators.
Urban stormwater runoff has long been a contributor to reduced clarity at the lake. Most of that runoff occurs during the winter and spring, when rain and snowmelt carry small, inorganic particles from the land, roads, and other developed areas into the lake.
Yet, despite wet winters during 2011 and 2012, clarity improved, possibly indicating that efforts to reduce urban stormwater runoff are having a positive impact. More data on stormwater is needed to make definitive conclusions.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is leading a collaborative Environmental Improvement Program that supports achievement of environmental standards at the lake, with clarity being among the most important.
“Average annual clarity is again moving in a positive direction,” says Joanne S. Marchetta, executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.”With passage of the Regional Plan Update that focuses on the Environmental Improvement Program and water quality treatments in town centers where they are most needed, we expect to see this trend continue.”
“We are very excited about the results from 2012, especially within the context of the long-term record for annual and winter clarity,” says John Reuter, associate director of the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. “It is particularly encouraging to see clarity improve during wet years when the amount of fine sediments and nutrients going into the lake is high.”
Clarity readings since 2000:
- 2012: 75.3 feet (22.9 meters)
- 2011: 68.9 feet (21 meters)
- 2010: 64.4 feet (19.6 meters)
- 2009: 68.1 feet (20.8 meters)
- 2008: 69.6 feet (21.2 meters)
- 2007: 70.1 feet (21.4 meters)
- 2006: 67.7 feet (20.6 meters)
- 2005: 72.4 feet (22.1 meters)
- 2004: 73.6 feet (22.4 meters)
- 2003: 71 feet (21.6 meters)
- 2002: 78 feet (23.8 meters)
- 2001: 73.6 meters (22.4 meters)
- 2000: 67.3 feet (20.5 meters)
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency funded the clarity analyses.
Source: UC Davis