Mountain Town News: Plastic beaches at Lake Tahoe |

Mountain Town News: Plastic beaches at Lake Tahoe

Allen Best
Mountain Town News
Allen Best, author of Mountain Town News.
Courtesy of Allen Best

Grains of sand mixed with plastic along Tahoe shores

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – With its rare transparency, Lake Tahoe looks pure. But a researcher from the University of California, Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, has been finding evidence along its shoreline that Tahoe has been getting polluted by plastics, too.

Katie Senft, aided by interns, has been scooping sand at defined distances from the shoreline into glass jars. In the laboratory, she uses techniques to assess the plastic content of what looks like sand. Metal, wood, and glass tools are used in the lab to avoid plastic contamination.

She is finding plenty of evidence of microplastics, fragments 5 millimeters or less, smaller than a grain of rice, according to a release from the UC Davis published in the Sierra Sun.

“If Senft’s preliminary research at one of the clearest, cleanest lakes in the world is any indication, the problem is widespread in freshwater systems as well,” the news release says.

“The ocean gets a lot of attention about plastic in the water, and our freshwater lakes don’t,” Senft said. “This issue has flow under the radar in the Tahoe Basin. When plastics enter the environment, be it terrestrial or aquatic, they stick around for a long time. We don’t know the long-term implications of having plastics in our water and in our soil.”

Wastewater is the main source of microplastics in most freshwater systems. Microfibers—small bits of fiber from laundered clothes that find their way back to water systems—are the primary cause.

But that does not explain the microplastics found in the Tahoe Basin. Treated wastewater from South Lake Tahoe and other communities lining the shore is not released into the lake. Instead, it is piped outside the basin for release.

What is producing the microplastics in Lake Tahoe? The story does not say, but it does note that Senft and her assistants are finding plastic bottle caps, film from food packaging, golf balls, and even a segment of plastic turf.

Why a fire evacuation plan was resisted at Lake Tahoe

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – It would seem that having an evacuation plan in place would be a good thing in mountain communities where wildfires always pose an element of risk.

But in the Lake Tahoe Basin of California and Nevada, officials for years resisted creating widespread evacuation plans. The Tahoe Daily Tribune explains that some feared concrete plans could put people in danger, rather than taking them away from it. This is because of the few exits from the basin but also the unpredictable nature of wildfire.

Plus, with many different governmental agencies around the lake, creating a basin-wide evacuation plan requires collaboration and community and communication across jurisdictional lines, which further complicates the work.

Tahoe was far from alone. The Daily News points to a survey by USA Today Network-California earlier this year that only 22% of communities at high risk from wildfire had a robust, publicly available evacuation plan. Like those in Tahoe, some officials in California argued that such plans could be more harmful than helpful.

Then came the Camp Fire last November. It killed 86 people in and around the community of Paradise, Calif., in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada northeast of Sacramento. That community had an evacuation plan.

In the aftermath of that fire, residents in South Lake Tahoe pushed their officials to act. The Daily Tribune reports that Jeff Meston, then the fire chief in Tahoe, saw Tahoe as being at even greater risk than Paradise. “We have many, many similarities, and some dis-similarities that are disadvantageous to us.”

Now, South Lake Tahoe is close to having an evacuation map. No word on the plans for a basin-wide plan.

Power plug pulled on world’s longest warming experiment

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – In 1990, when Dr. John Harte first staked out plots on a hillside covered with wildflowers a few miles from the Crested Butte ski area, Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison, cell phones were rare, and fewer than 1% of households had Internet access.

Harte wanted to understand the effect of warming temperatures on the wildflower-laden hillsides at 9,500 feet in elevation. Even then, the effect of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels and altered land uses was broadly understood.

For his experiment he laid out 10 plots, each 10 by 30 feet. Above 5 of the plots he dangled heating elements that warmed the temperature approximately 4 degrees Fahrenheit (2.2 degrees C). The other 5 plots were not artificially warmed.

The experiment found that this increment of warming gradually replaced the green hillside with an ecosystem found about 1,500 feet lower in the Gunnison Valley, a place dominated by sagebrush. Sagebrush favors hotter, drier conditions.

That has clear implications for ski towns. During the 21st century, various computer models predict that Earth’s average temperature will rise between 3.2 and 7.2 degrees F (1.8° and 4.0°C), according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

In July, the experiment ended after 28 years, the longest-running warming experiment in the world. Dr. Ian Billick, director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, says the National Science Foundation dropped funding a decade ago. It continued with other funding sources after that.

While the electricity to the plots has been cut off, perhaps the most important research continues. That research will probe what was happening underground in this transition, how the carbon content of the soil changed. Billick explains that trenches were dug lateral to the test plots, then bores inserted into the soil a meter and a half below the surface. The soil samples are being analyzed in a laboratory.

The big question is whether the warming climate replicated by the experiment at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory will produce a feedback mechanism. In other words, will this shift in vegetation caused by rising temperatures result in more carbon being emitted into the atmosphere, causing even more heating?

Forbes Magazine explains that soil stores a considerable amount of carbon, and the net effect of warming on carbon storage depends upon photosynthesis. In photosynthesis, plants take carbon out of the atmosphere to make plant material. In plant decomposition, microbes break down plant material, releasing carbon to the atmosphere as they do so.

Other studies with more advanced techniques have been launched since Harte’s experiment began in 1990, says Billick. However, the soil samples and some of the plant material will be preserved for examination in future years by scientists as they gain new tools for their analysis.

Various scientists completed 35 research papers over the years based on observations of the plots, but Billick predicts the most important paper is yet to be written after researchers complete their examination of the soil samples. That paper will likely contain important new understandings about how warming will alter the carbon cycle of soil.

New reasons in Jackson Hole for rising real estate prices

JACKSON, Wyo. – Real estate in Jackson Hole has always been an attractive proposition because of Wyoming’s tax laws. There is no state income tax, making it a good place to declare as the permanent home of people of great wealth from elsewhere.

Real estate agent Greg Prugh also points out other reasons to explain rapidly escalating prices. More real estate is also being sold over the Internet, in which the sellers and local real estate people never see the buyers, he tells the Jackson Hole News&Guide. And real estate has become even more of a global market.

Real estate sales were down in the first six months of the year in Teton County, but prices rose briskly. A house that sold five years ago for $1.7 million in Melody Ranch, which in the 1990s was developed as an enclave for Jackson’s middle class, was recently resold for $3.75 million.

At Banff gateway town, a brisk rise in rental prices

CANMORE, Alberta – Housing rentals have been rising at a brisk rate in Canmore, the gateway community to Banff National Park. In the span of just four years, costs have increased 71%, according to a recent study. No word on how much incomes have grown during the same time span.

A one-bedroom rental this year fetches $1,483, compared to $866 in 2016. Even then, according to a study, 29% of renters in Canmore were paying 30% or more of their pre-tax income on rent. The Canadian Rental Housing Index holds that paying 30% to 49% is unaffordable, and 50% or more is severely unaffordable, points out the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

“I think everyone who deals in housing knows that low-income single adults are very underserved, the people with disabilities are underserved, the number of people who are paying (more than 30% of their income) is outrageous compared to the rest of the province and the rest of the country,” said Ian Wilson, the chief administrative officer for the Bow Valley Regional Housing.

Why did this wolf decide to sniff around the tent?

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta – A wolf was killed near a campground in Banff National Park recently after it bit a camper.

Parks officials say the man heard the wolf sniffing and pawing around the tent, and then it pushed on the fabric of the tent. Thinking it was a bear, the camper tried to scare it away. As he did so, the wolf grabbed his arm and tore the tent open. The man suffered minor injuries in the scuffle before the wolf ran off. Also in the tent were three of the victim’s family members.

Parks Canada told the Rocky Mountain Outlook no significant wildlife attractants or food were within or near the tent. What drew the wolf? Such cases seem to be so rare in North America that nobody could put together a hypothesis.

71-year-old veteran takes hike across continent

IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. – It may not be particularly notable for a 71-year-old to walk across the Continental Divide, but William Shuttleworth did a lot of walking to get there.

An Air Force veteran, he set out from his home in Massachusetts on May 15, intent on reaching the Pacific Ocean. He passed through Colorado in late July, pausing in Idaho Springs for a night before setting out to walk across Loveland Pass into Summit County and then to Vail. The Clear Creek Courant reports he hoped to raise $100,000 for disabled veterans in the course of his walking.

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