Divers snag Donner Lake trash monster

Debris, old tires, single-use plastics litter the shallows

PHOTO/CLEAN UP THE LAKE: A diver collects debris from the bottom of Donner Lake on July 6.

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Archeologists who probed the area around Donner Lake over the last 40 years discovered evidence of the suffering of starving families who were snowbound there in the terrible winter of 1846-47.

Scuba divers working in that lake for three days last week surfaced with 1,561 pounds of garbage found along a one-mile corridor near the shoreline – evidence that some vacationers use the beautiful setting as a trash bin.

“There’s accidental trash and then there’s intentional trash,” said Colin West, executive director of Clean Up the Lake. “Some people may litter very intentionally. Some people really care and understand and some people don’t.”

The non-profit organization is dedicated to cleaning up the sub-surface of Lake Tahoe’s 72 miles of shoreline. The Tahoe project was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit because ferrying groups of divers around in small boats all day wasn’t advisable. Instead, divers last week began an underwater cleanup of Donner Lake, a less extensive project which will help the team get ready for the big water at Tahoe next year. “While COVID 19 set us back, we’re using this time to our advantage, developing our craft, fine tuning our skill,” West said.

Donner Lake, about 20 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe, is named for an ill-fated party of wagon train pioneers who traveled to California in 1846.  The group of 81 men, women and children were already exhausted and nearly out of provisions in October when early storms trapped them near the lake. The Sierra held them prisoner for months and about half died. Some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Their story has become a tragic icon of the American West.

Today, the Donner Memorial State Park and Museum occupies the east and part of the south shore of the lake. Residences, resorts and public piers dot the north shore. Winter activities include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In summer, visitors enjoy camping, picnicking, boating, fishing, water-skiing, wind-surfing, hiking and mountain biking. Some vacationers leave more than just traces of their presence behind.

Diving teams target an area about 35 feet from the shore. Divers, three or four at a time, swim 10 to 15 feet apart, parallel to the shoreline, where the water is about 25 to 30 feet deep. They carry hooked sticks and mesh bags. Some “accidental” trash is relatively easy to identify. “We found a lot of hats and we know no one is throwing those away,” West said.

Besides the soggy chapeaus, the teams found 85 tennis balls that dogs presumably failed to retrieve, some children’s toys, a couple boat anchors, a few diving masks, footwear, and a tackle box containing a fishing license dated to the 2001 season. The angler was located on Facebook, West said, but so far she hasn’t replied to the group’s message.

Last week’s haul also included a mountain of probable intentional trash — things dropped overboard by boaters or tossed into the lake from the shore. That bounty included a plethora of beer cans, some with the old-style pop tops; glass and plastic beverage bottles of every shape and size; a large volume of single-use plastics, including bags and food containers; and 35 old tires in various states of decomposition, found in several spots along the one-mile cleanup area.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Sadye Easler, services coordinator with Clean Up the Lake, with some of the trash collected underwater at Donner Lake on July 10.

“Why so many tires? Why are they in the lake? I have no idea,” West said. “About half the weight (of the debris) was the tires.”

A garbage can full of cement, used to anchor a long-vanished buoy, was too heavy to remove and left on the bottom. Divers also found several exercise dumbbells, chained together like a giant’s charm bracelet, and probably used for the same purpose as the cement. “If we had a crane, we could have pulled out another ton of garbage on Friday,” West said. Cement isn’t a big issue for the lake’s environmental quality, he said, but plastic and, possibly, rubber items may be a concern.

Plastic breaks down into microscopic particles that wind up in fish and can travel through water filters, ultimately being ingested by people. There is speculation among scientists that microplastics could have adverse health effects on humans as the particles move through the marine food web and drinking water systems.

Microplastics both absorb and give off chemicals and harmful pollutants, including carcinogens like dioxin and PCBs. The problem is so new that there are no standards for microplastics in drinking water and researchers are trying to determine what levels of the stuff may be dangerous.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Sadye Easler, services coordinator for Clean Up the Lake, paddles out to join divers at Donner Lake on July 10.

Clean Up the Lake is funded by donations and and some state and federal environmental grants. The group began the Donner project on its own dime, but West said Erica Mertens, administrative analyst for the City of Truckee’s Keep Truckee Green program has “helped us tremendously” by providing 6-yard dumpsters to haul away the debris. “She has been amazing,” he said.

The group also has teamed up with two young sisters from Truckee who started their own shore cleanup project at the lake and plan to install anti-littering signs on the lake’s 37 public piers. A related Reno News & Review story describes the girls’ effort, which began after the sisters saw trash left at the lake by visitors in late May.

West hopes Clean Up the Lake can raise enough donations to sweep the remaining four miles of Donner’s shoreline this summer and to support the effort to clean up the 72 miles of Lake Tahoe’s shoreline beginning in 2021.

“People see Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake, these gorgeous alpine lakes, and they go out and they recreate, have fun, enjoy themselves,” West said. “But people aren’t really thinking about the effect those large numbers of tourists have. The trash is a big issue and people don’t look under the surface, both figuratively and literally.”

Economic development and tourism get a lot of money and attention, he said, but the flip side is the trash the ever-growing numbers of people create and often leave behind.

“We’ll pay to build the things that draw the people, but no one is cleaning the trash,” he said. “I think everyone — government officials, civilians, visitors, locals — need to realize that this is a big issue and it’s becoming a lot worse.”

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