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UC Davis Environmental Research Center Fundamental at Lake Tahoe

December 27, 2022 | Member Submitted

Originally published in the Tahoe Daily Tribune on 12/26/22. View the original article here.

Written by Madison Schultz. Photos provided by Katie Senft from the Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

A mantra trawl after skimming the surface of Lake Tahoe for buoyant microplastics.

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — The 72-mile circumference of Lake Tahoe is home to a variety of native plants and wildlife and endures a full, four seasons each calendar year. With Lake Tahoe hosting mild summers, frigid, snowy winters, and even natural disasters such as wildfire — the largest freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada region has undergone substantial environmental change.

UC Davis’ Tahoe Environmental Research Center, also known as TERC, is one of the local pillars in the Lake Tahoe Basin that supports, promotes, and avidly works towards gaining insight and knowledge on Tahoe’s ever-changing environment, external forces, and how the local community can better mitigate the negative environmental factors that have occurred in the Lake Tahoe Basin. TERC has a core staff of over 20 scientists and researchers that each individually follow their specified area of study and consistently work towards new findings in the Tahoe area. Here is a preview on some of the scientists avidly working towards a sustainable Lake Tahoe.

Katie Senft has been with TERC for over 10 years as a staff research associate studying various projects including water quality monitoring, invasive species studies, and microplastics. As a multi-faceted scientist, Senft initially went to school for aquatic ecology, which in turn translates to her field work for TERC.

“My typical day-to-day is when we meet out at the field station in Tahoe City around 8:30 a.m. and load up all our gear for the day, which can be instrumentation for water quality monitoring, scuba gear if we plan to go diving, or sometimes the Secchi disk for water clarity,” Senft said.

A mantra trawl after skimming the surface of Lake Tahoe for buoyant microplastics.

While Senft studies various elements of Tahoe aquatics, her main area of focus as of recent is in microplastics. After preliminary work done in 2018, it is definitive that there are microplastics in Lake Tahoe, and Senft has been working towards finding what those plastic sources are.

“We ultimately want to know where the plastics are going once, they’re in the lake,” Senft said. “We’ve collected all the samples from the field and we’re working with the lab to analyze the plastics that we pull out. Every piece will be singularly looked at to identify what type of plastic each piece specifically is.”

Senft urges the local community to keep the lake clean by disposing of any garbage.

“Just clean up, make sure your trash is in a trash can where it belongs,” Senft said. “Any trash that’s on the landscape will most likely end up in the lake with spring runoff, so just throw your garbage away and clean up any trash you find.”

Geoff Schladow, Water Resources & Environmental Engineering, TERC director and professor

Dr. Geoff Schladow has been the founding director of TERC since 2004. Holding his doctoral degree in civil engineering, Schladow’s specified area of study is in environmental fluid mechanics, water quality modeling, and the dynamics of inland waters. As an expert on the movement and mechanics of water, Schladow has spent an impressive amount of time and effort studying the environmental factors to Lake Tahoe.

A petri dish of field samples of microplastics that are being isolated and individually studied.

“It’s not just the highs and lows that influence the lake to change, it’s a lot of factors,” Schladow said. “Water quality, warmer and colder temperatures year-round, and even natural disasters that the Tahoe community has witnessed all play an extremely vital role in how Tahoe changes.”

With Schladow serving as a TERC scientist for decades, his findings have been impressive.

“Everything was predicated on the idea that everything is just nutrients and if we can control nutrients, we can bring back [lake] clarity,” Schladow said. “What we found 20-25 years ago is that it actually is very fine particles that control Tahoe’s water clarity; not the nutrients.”

While nutrients aren’t directly linked back to the lake’s water clarity, they still play a vital role in Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem, being the main source for algae growth, and according to Schladow, this can pose an ‘existential threat’ to Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem.

“Because of increasing algae and the effects of climate change, we talk about the potential for Lake Tahoe to lose its oxygen at the bottom of the lake,” Schladow said. “When you talk about climate change in Lake Tahoe, most people don’t consider this – but it’s a really pressing issue that TERC has been prioritizing and working towards solving.”

While the TERC team is actively working towards problem-solving this concern for a better Lake Tahoe in the decades to come, Schladow notes that there are ways that the community work towards achieving a better, sustainable Lake Tahoe such as decreasing your drive time around the lake, avoiding lawn fertilizer, and avoiding single-use plastic.

“Once you mention climate change everyone rolls their eyes and silently says ‘well it’s not me,’ but there are lots of little things that we can do,” Schladow said. “Adding nutrients to the lake is something we’re all guilty of for our daily conveniences, so being aware of those day-to-day habits is a great way to limit adding negative impacts to the lake.”

Patricia Maloney, Plant Pathology, associate director and project scientist

As a forest and conservation biologist for over 25 years, Patricia Maloney has served as TERC scientist for over 10 years. Joining the team in 2007 and with a background in forest health and botany, Maloney is consistently working towards seeking better climate-resilient forest restoration strategies for the Lake Tahoe area.

“Local adaptation is more important than people think and one of my big pushes is sustainable management of forest genetic resources,” Maloney said.

In fact, when sustainable management of forests is practiced, in her studies, Maloney has witnessed significant local adaptation when testing local stressors such as water drought or bark beetle outbreaks in the Lake Tahoe Basin, which has led her towards actively pushing against the ideas of implementing assisted migration into the area, the act of moving plants or animals to a different habitat.

“There’s a lot of push for assisted migration, and I’m not a supporter of that for the Tahoe area, at all,” Maloney said. “From our research, we see local adaptation at the scale of the Tahoe Basin. When you do [forest] restoration, use local and diverse seed sources, because they are actively adapting. We are seeing adaptation happen in real-time throughout the region.”

Sourcing and studying native plants and animals to continue the longevity of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s ecosystem is vital to the long-term growth of Tahoe’s forests. Maloney notes that while the forest will be ever-changing, the timeline to see the change in real-time is long, and the longevity of Tahoe forests shouldn’t rely on a short-term plan such as assisted migration.

“With climate and environmental changes, we will see changes and shifts in species composition and structure, there is no doubt; but it won’t be this dramatic change overnight, it will play out over decades,” Maloney said. “One of the things that people don’t think about are the shifts and changes in genetic structure and architecture. People can’t see it and they don’t think about it, but myself and the other forest geneticists, we see it, and we think about it.”

While each of these TERC scientists are in a different field of study, they all share the same suggestions when working towards a better Lake Tahoe — to actively be mindful, understanding, and respectful of Tahoe’s environment is vital for a sustainable future for the lake and the surrounding region. Making small changes in daily habits is advocating for a better Lake Tahoe.

Editor’s Note: While these three TERC scientists are actively working towards a sustainable, healthy environment for the Lake Tahoe Basin, there is a full staff of other scientists at the Tahoe Environmental Research Center that are doing the same and proactively working towards scientific findings and sustainable measures throughout the Tahoe Basin in all environmental areas.

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