I’ve always been fascinated by cause and effect. Something happens and consequences are reaped. When COVID-19 seeped from television screens into our neighborhoods, I watched the expected side effects of a global pandemic start to take root: unemployment, sickness, isolation, funny memes. What I didn’t expect was an onslaught of trash in my home, Lake Tahoe.
Laura volunteers with Clean Up The Lake.
With air travel on hold and the ability to work remotely, a recent national survey found people were willing to drive up to 700 miles for a mere weekend trip this past summer, which put Lake Tahoe on the map for half the west coast. Tahoe has always been a popular tourist destination, but nothing could have prepared the locals for the mass influx of tourism reminiscent of a typical Fourth of July weekend all summer long. Being a business owner in Tahoe—my husband and I own a coffee shop on the north shore—we are largely reliant on tourism and were grateful for the unexpected foot traffic, of course. But as the summer waned on, it was apparent that the throngs of crowds were contributing to a mounting trash problem.
I chatted with Jeff Cowen at Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), a government-funded land management organization leading the cooperative effort to preserve and restore the Tahoe region. Jeff admitted providing data on visitor growth is logistically challenging. The Tahoe basin is situated in two states, three counties, with dozens of agencies—all short-staffed. What he could say is that California State Parks pulled 100,000 pounds of trash weekly in the Tahoe basin this summer—a staggering number. Throughout the summer months, state park employees each spent one hour out of their eight-hour shift on trash pickup. It wasn’t enough. State parks were understaffed and underfunded.
Clean Up The Lake plans to dive around the entire 72-mile perimeter of Lake Tahoe and clean up trash under the surface.
At Kings Beach State Recreation Area, 12 new dumpsters were added to keep up with the trash increase. Despite this, trash was still being found on the ground each week—not always because the dumpsters were full, but because people didn’t want to touch the dumpsters. Jeff noted these issues happened while shelter-in-place orders were in effect and people were not supposed to be visiting public lands to begin with. He commented:
“It was insane. We were overrun. We were getting photos sent to us daily of overflowing garbage cans, but most of the garbage sites were Forest Service sites and they were getting jammed. The Forest Service had 8,370 fires in California and were also experiencing a hiring freeze, so they were like, ‘How are we going to get people to come and clean up trash when we’re being told that we can’t go into the office?’ We were throwing out sustainable messaging left and right, with no one to enforce it. There were no site managers anywhere to be spoken of.”
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Eventually, TRPA received a grant they allocated to the Forest Service and California State Parks for additional trash pick-ups throughout the week, but there still wasn’t enough budget or manpower for weekend pick-ups to coincide with weekend visitors. Toilet paper and human waste was another issue. For a time after they opened, California State Parks weren’t allowed to open their public restrooms which presented an interesting problem—how can you have a state park open, even with limited capacity, and just tell people to go in the woods? Illegal parking—even with raised fines and tow trucks at the ready—became commonplace as well.
For many years, Tahoe has been advocating for sustainable recreation. More and more people will continue to visit and they’ll bring their garbage with them. Jeff stressed that communicating with these new visitors on how to interact with their vacation destination—in terms of transit, garbage and parking—will be of the utmost importance for local agencies in future years.
Jeff stressed: “Have a plan. Be prepared to change plans. If the area is full, go to another area. Take gloves so you can pack your trash out. Bring hand sanitizer so you can go to the bathroom.”
Thankfully, there are locals personally invested in keeping the lake pristine. In 2021, Clean Up The Lake founder Colin West will spend the summer scuba diving around the 72-mile perimeter of Lake Tahoe to pick up garbage—an undertaking that will arguably be the biggest clean up in Tahoe’s history. I recently tagged along on an afternoon dive with Colin and his crew, and it was fascinating to witness the scuba production unfold and their passion for keeping the lake clean for generations to come. I sat down with Colin to hear more.
Colin West, Founder of Clean Up The Lake.
What initially gave you the idea to do a scuba dive clean up around Lake Tahoe?
COLIN WEST: After a career in film and television, I really wanted to put my energy into something that would benefit our community and our planet. I heard about some locals who did a scuba clean up and got 600 pounds of trash from one small cove. I was blown away learning how 600 pounds of trash could be in one tiny area under our seemingly clean lake. I began diving in Tahoe summer of last year to scout these issues. We saw trash, and realized it was a serious issue.
We did an organized clean up that resulted in 311 pounds of trash removed [and then] we’ve had multiple days of 500, 600, 700 and almost 800 pounds of trash in one day. Numerous times. This summer has proven that we have a lot of work ahead of us.
Clean Up the Lake divers often swim a mile underwater to collect trash at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. Photo by Jason Smith.
How has the Tahoe community responded to your efforts? In what areas do you need the most help?
COLIN: The Tahoe community has been amazing: spreading the word, supporting us, posts going viral on community Facebook pages. Individuals have helped us reach some of our GoFundMe goals. It’s been amazing seeing our community get behind us and I’m forever grateful! We need the most support in fundraising, as well as helping get some capital assets to our NPO. Businesses can become partnering donors, while individuals and smaller businesses can “adopt a mile” on the lake for scuba clean ups. We are trying to get our hands on a decent off-shore fishing boat, and then we also need a bigger jet ski and a truck for hauling all of the trash and towing vessels!
Collected bags of trash are handed off to volunteers in kayaks and boats.
How should people be mindful of their trash while on vacation (in Tahoe or elsewhere)?
COLIN: It’s always great to make sure you never intentionally litter. When you’re drinking a few beers on the lake, are you planning ahead for that gust of wind that could accidentally knock a drink over into the water? We need to be preventative with the way we think about our approach to recreating responsibility. So much litter is accidental. Bring garbage receptacles along with you on boats, on the beach, on hikes, etc.
In your eyes, what steps should the local community and governmental agencies be doing to mitigate the onslaught of trash we saw this summer?
COLIN: I’ve always said with more people, comes more trash. It really doesn’t matter where people come from. I have seen tourists help us do clean ups and I’ve seen litter from them. I’ve seen locals litter and help with clean ups too.
I think locals need to simply think about how they can better be part of the solution. Ensuring that local government agencies have the proper management in place to respond to these issues is important… We need to be ready for this, staff appropriately, install further trash and recycling receptacles, invest in proper commercial composting facilities, and invest financially in projects and organizations that can help support these types of solutions.
Clean Up The Lake regularly collects 300-800 lbs of trash—some of which is thought to be up to 40 years old—in a one-day dive with a team of volunteers.
What are a few feasible things we all can (and should) do to minimize our footprint and be more sustainable?
COLIN: Look at what you’re buying. This morning at a coffee shop I wanted a savory snack, but it was wrapped in plastic. So I got the cinnamon, apple, caramel drizzle instead. Now that might not be good for my gut, but I ditched the plastic! I also make sure to have reusable mugs and reusable beer cups when I go out. Try to buy things in bulk and look at where there is plastic in your life and what you can cut out (toothbrush, toothpaste, use shampoo bars or buy bulk and refill!)
Also, it’s important to see what organizations are doing in your community. Go to city council meetings and voice your opinion during public comment about getting the government to support programs like ours. Or, get them to address overflowing trash cans at your favorite beach and increase their funding in their own city staff to add garbage cans or increase the number of pickups they do in tourist season. Plenty to do, but it takes an army and we’ve all got to take this step together.