Lake Tahoe wetland destroyed in 1960s getting second chance

A nearly 600-acre wetland sits at the southernmost end of Lake Tahoe. It’s where Tahoe’s two largest tributaries — the Upper Truckee River and Trout Creek — meet and mingle amid tall grasses and willows before flowing into the lake. This wetland might not look like much, but it’s critical to the health of Lake Tahoe’s environment. The wetland naturally filters pollution and fine sediment, guarding Lake Tahoe’s clarity. It also stores carbon, fights climate change and serves as a resilient habitat in times of drought for dozens of fish and wildlife species.

But for more than a century, the Upper Truckee Marsh was considered a wasteland, during a time when marshes across the country were being developed and paved over. When Tahoe was experiencing an enormous development boom in the mid-20th century, the Forest Service had an opportunity to conserve 750 acres of the marsh. But the agency turned down the $75,000 deal, according to Michael J. Mackley’s book “Saving Lake Tahoe.” 

“Forest Service representatives rejected the offer because they saw no reason to acquire a swamp,” Mackley wrote. Then, in December 1956, the Tahoe Keys developers purchased the land. They excavated the wetland, dredged the marshes to build a marina and constructed more than 1,500 homes. The Tahoe Keys have been called one of Tahoe’s worst environmental disasters because the development destroyed the largest wetland in the Tahoe Basin.

Today, a large-scale effort is underway to restore what’s left of the Upper Truckee River Marsh. I visited the site of the largest watershed program in Lake Tahoe’s history earlier this summer, where an $11.5 million project to reclaim an abandoned, polluted arm of a marina is wrapping up this year. 

Now, all signs of that old marina and its aquatic invasive weed infestation are buried beneath several feet of dirt — apparently an expert-approved method of repairing the mistakes of the past. Thousands of new seedlings are planted: grasses and willows, mostly. Lupins bloom here and there. A beautiful new walking trail provides public access to a sandy beach on Lake Tahoe’s shoreline. 

Getting to this point of success was anything but straightforward. Stream restoration is a mix of both science and art, as the project’s stewards told me. At times, bulldozers were brought in. In other moments, the scientists let Mother Nature take the lead. 

“The idea of creating open water, you just don’t get that chance in the Sierra,” said Scott Carroll, a senior environmental scientist at the California Tahoe Conservancy. The conservancy is the lead agency on this restoration project. 

“This wetland — that we reclaimed from basically fields of sage — you just don’t get those opportunities,” Carroll continued, “because almost all of our wetlands that were destroyed have massive infrastructure on them, like a casino or a highway.”

Stuart Roll, left, and Scott Carroll stand next to the Upper Truckee River and surrounding marsh, discussing the science and art of stream restoration.

Stuart Roll, left, and Scott Carroll stand next to the Upper Truckee River and surrounding marsh, discussing the science and art of stream restoration.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

The Upper Truckee Marsh could have disappeared in the same way, easily. After building the Tahoe Keys, developers had plans to continue their expansion across the entire wetland, with a golf course and more condos slated for this fragile piece of water and land. But a lawsuit and ensuing court decision in the late 1980s stopped the golf course, opening up the possibility to finally heal this important wetland decades later.

On a beautiful late June day, I meet Carroll as well as Stuart Roll, watershed program manager at the California Tahoe Conservancy, and Chris Carney, the conservancy’s communication’s director, on the edge of the Upper Truckee Marsh. 

The marsh is right in the middle of South Lake Tahoe, a small city with a population of more than 22,000. We’re a few miles from the casinos and not far from the morning rush hour traffic on Highway 50. But I don’t feel at all like I’m in the middle of a city. 

We’re looking out toward a vast wetland full of willows, wildflowers, birds and water. Lake Tahoe is shimmering in the distance. The landscape is lush and vibrant green, almost hitting the peak of summer bloom. The soundscape is quiet and calm. It’s hard to believe this land was once slated for building more condominiums and a golf course. The greenery and serenity of it all is a testament to the success of the restoration effort led over recent decades by the California Tahoe Conservancy.

The Washoe Tribe were the original people who lived on this land. But when the Washoe were driven out of their homeland by settlers and miners in the mid-1800s, and when the Tahoe Basin was clear-cut to support the silver mines in Virginia City in the 1860s, the Upper Truckee Marsh was left out to dry. 

Ranchers moved in during the late 1800s. Their efforts to divert the water from the meadows so their cattle could graze were the first strikes against the marsh. 

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, when a development boom transformed the Lake Tahoe Basin, the Tahoe Keys developers utterly destroyed what was left of the marsh when they built their lakefront subdivision with private piers and lagoons, multimillion-dollar homes, condos and a marina. 

The Tahoe Keys not only dredged the fragile wetland to build their subdivision, drying out ancient creek beds and wreaking havoc on wildlife habitat, they also straightened the Upper Truckee River and diverted the meandering streams into a man-made canal, which looks more like a ditch in some spots, that fed directly to Lake Tahoe. The development also pumped loads of sediment and pollution into the lake’s waters.  

After the Tahoe Keys neighborhood and marina was built, the 1970s and 1980s were a time when Lake Tahoe was losing its clarity at the rate of a foot a year, according to the conservancy. That trend slowed when massive public and private restoration efforts began to heal the damage done to Lake Tahoe’s watershed.

In 1988, after a court halted further plans by the Tahoe Keys to build more condos and a golf course, the California Tahoe Conservancy began to acquire some of the land in the Upper Truckee Marsh. 

Twenty years ago, the California Tahoe Conservancy embarked on the first restoration project to heal the Upper Truckee Marsh. At that time, the wetland was buried deep under layers and layers of soil that had been dredged and dumped to build the Tahoe Keys. It took a crew of dump trucks about 8,000 trips to remove all that infill and recover what was left of the wetland. 

Now, we can see the success of that labor. Willows are matured. Grasses are growing. Instead of a bunch of condos, endangered species took up residence here. 

“We actually have a pretty decent population of an endangered species that lives right across the river, right here,” Carroll said. “Willow flycatcher, small songbirds.” 

An aerial photo of flooded marshland in 2017. This scene will become more common now that restoration efforts have sought to reclaim and heal wetland damaged by developers.

An aerial photo of flooded marshland in 2017. This scene will become more common now that restoration efforts have sought to reclaim and heal wetland damaged by developers.

Courtesy of California Tahoe Conservancy

That first restoration project reclaimed about a dozen acres of wetland. For context, the entire Upper Truckee River Marsh, or what’s left of it, spans about 600 acres. It’s a huge project. The conservancy is working alongside many other government agencies on restoration work up and down the Upper Truckee River watershed. 

In 2015, when the final environmental impact report published, the conservancy set multiple goals for its second big restoration project, which builds off the success from 20 years ago. This is the same project that I visited in late June. It aimed to reclaim that polluted arm of the Tahoe Keys Marina and restore it back to a functioning, healthy wetland. Another goal: To build new channels in the marsh, helping the Upper Truckee River find its way from the man-made canal back to its ancient creek beds.

“This project has been a basin priority for decades,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot in April 2020, when the restoration project began. “It also demonstrates how much we’ve learned during that time about the importance of rivers and their floodplains to the health of the lake and the basin’s ecotourism-based economy.”

Crews blocked the marina off with steel sheet piles. The conservancy consulted with environmental scientists and aquatic invasive species experts to determine how best to contain the weed infestation in the marina water. The best option? Bury the weeds beneath several feet of soil. Next, the Conservancy planted tens of thousands of willow and grass seedlings. 

On my June visit, irrigation lines were pumping water to the new seedlings, helping them get established under the beating sun during another summer of drought. But by the end of this summer, this land will be reconnected with the Upper Truckee River Marsh. In big winters and times of flood, it’ll be entirely underwater. 

The restored wetland will “improve lake clarity, support dozens of fish and wildlife species and combat climate change by capturing and storing carbon and nutrients that fuel algal blooms in the lake. The wetter marsh will also be more resilient to droughts, extreme events and other impacts of climate change,” according to a conservancy statement.

The Upper Truckee Marsh is one of Lake Tahoe's most critical ecosystems and its largest wetland. Marshes also store carbon and help fight climate change.

The Upper Truckee Marsh is one of Lake Tahoe’s most critical ecosystems and its largest wetland. Marshes also store carbon and help fight climate change.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

Carroll and the conservancy led me on a circular walk around the soon-to-be-wetland, down to the lake, and up a dirt walking path that was designed to provide public access to a sandy beach in the heart of South Lake Tahoe. Eventually, the conservancy plans to install interpretative panels here, too, to help the public learn more about the history of the land and the Washoe Tribe. (The conservancy is also working with the Washoe Tribe on another restoration project in the basin, at Meeks Bay.)

Then, we headed to another part of the wetland, where the grass was thigh-high and mosquitos reigned supreme. This is where the conservancy was doing the part-science, part-art work of reconnecting the river with its ancient path.

We reached a bend in the river, where huge tree stumps were pushed on their sides, exposing their roots. This was a natural barrier, designed to mimic a riverbank, and encourage the Upper Truckee to flow into the marsh, instead of continuing into the ditch built by the Tahoe Keys developers.

“We’re trying to get this thing back to where it wants to be. Luckily we have the infrastructure, right? Mother Nature built all those channels. We just got to get the water back there and then let her make the decision,” Carroll said.

Essentially, they’re forcing the river to flood back into the wetland, just as nature intended. Today, the canal that flushes the Upper Truckee is about four times smaller than it used to be, so when water comes down, it spills over the edges of the canal and into the wetland, where it’ll spread out and settle. 

“We’re trying to put Mother Nature in the position to do whatever it wants,” Carroll said. “Luckily, everyone acknowledges that that’s best for the environment and the best idea to get this thing restored.”

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