Tahoe’s trash trouble continues

A sled corral full of broken plastic sleds at Fallen Leaf Lake Hill. | Courtesy League to Save Lake Tahoe 

Editor’s Note: Read the original series covering the tourism impacts that locals and visitors alike experienced this past summer:

Part I “Tahoe’s tourism tipping point
Part II “
Grappling with garbage & grievances
Part III “
Trash kills bears
Part IV “Microplastics: Tahoe’s tiniest trash
Part V “Fire, fear & red flags

As I walk through the entrance to Donner Memorial State Park on a recent snowy morning with my skis over my shoulder, I pass a sign that asks people to clean up their dog poop bags and trash. At the base of the sign is a stack of trash and numerous green plastic bags filled with dog poop peeking out of the fresh snow. I scratch my head and wonder, are these signs effective?

Report trash issues

Trash. Litter. Garbage. Rubbish. The issue is a lightning rod in the Tahoe Sierra. The topic has pitted locals against tourists. Community members lay the blame on government officials and local agencies for lack of services and enforcement. It’s all led to a trash nightmare and outrage in the community with people taking to social media and the streets to complain, and in many cases taking action to clean up Tahoe.

“We see that people litter for three main reasons: They have no sense of ownership of the area, they think someone else will pick up after them, or they see litter accumulated, so they litter. Litter attracts more litter.”   –Marilee Movius, League to Save Lake Tahoe

It’s been five months since the end of summer and Tahoe Weekly’s five-part series on tourism impacts, including trash, during the pandemic. The Tahoe Sierra has seen a large influx of people into the area as the pandemic has pushed people to visit the region more, wanting and needing to recreate in the outdoors. This created a perfect storm for more trash, which has persisted into winter.

Learn more

Clean Up the Lake | cleanupthelake.org
Keep Tahoe Blue | keeptahoeblue.org
Keep Truckee Green | keeptruckeegreen.org
Slediquette Campaign | takecaretahoe.org/sleds
Tahoe Blue Crews | keeptahoeblue.org
Tahoe Fund | tahoefund.org
Truckee Tahoe Litter Group | Facebook

The lack of access to public recreation areas during the winter has also exacerbated the trash issue. Wherever people can find parking, there are broken sleds, dog poop bags and disposable masks littering the snow. Read Tahoe Weekly’s story on “Winter Recreation Access Pushed to Limit” at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

Trash strewn at the base of a sign asking people to help keep trails and waterways clean. | Priya Hutner

While the amount of trash is down from last summer, it is still a galvanizing issue. Tahoe has and will continue to be a tourist destination. Ski resorts have limited capacity this winter and with day ticket sales curtailed or prohibited, this has prompted more people to walk, ski, snowshoe and sled in local and state parks, on trails and along any snow-covered hill.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe is at the forefront of mitigating the trash impact throughout the region.

“We see that people litter for three main reasons: They have no sense of ownership of the area, they think someone else will pick up after them, or they see litter accumulated, so they litter.

Litter attracts more litter. And those are the three reasons why litter takes place. And that’s why it’s important to remove litter from the environment,” explains Marilee Movius, community engagement manager for the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

The organization has already hosted 23 litter cleanups since Jan. 7. Plastic sleds, disposable masks, latex gloves, disinfecting wipes, and single-use to-go containers plague Tahoe’s winter hot spots.

“We see food wrappers, cups, water bottles, Gatorade, bottles, cans and food itself. This can be very harmful to wildlife because it looks like food or it smells like food, they’ll eat it and ingest the plastic. We also find wildlife scat that has these plastics in their poop. This also can make its way to the lake as the snow melts. We are also seeing that the plastic sleds people are using for sledding are not made very well and break down very quickly,” explains Movius.

“I find it frustrating that we have this conversation about trash all the time because we know the solution. More garbage cans and more trash service.”   –Amy Berry, The Tahoe Fund

Much of this type of trash has a dual impact as litter and, when it breaks down, it turns into microplastics that containment Lake Tahoe and local waterways. Read Tahoe Weekly’s story on “Microplastics: Tahoe’s tiniest trash” at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

The nonprofit Clean Up the Lake spent much of the summer diving in Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake to collect garbage, including a lot of plastic. The group is also helping the Tahoe Environmental Research Center study microplastics from the trash volunteers collect during their dives.

“While diving around Lake Tahoe, I can’t count the number of face masks and other pandemic-based trash,” says Colin West, founder and executive director of Clean Up The Lake.

Dan Canfield, Sierra district superintendent of the California State Parks Department, notes that sled trash and other litter have also remained a problem at local parks.

A pile of broken plastic sleds in a sled corral at the Spooner Lake sled hill. | Courtesy League to Save Lake Tahoe

“Since last summer, I’ve kept a keen eye on [trash]. In the wintertime our operations have a smaller footprint. We’ve had quite a few visitors up here. The areas we clear of snow have a lot of snow play going on. There are a lot of broken sleds and cans that that type of thing. From what I hear through the grapevine, it’s been worse on some of the federal lands. The sled trash issues have been terrible,” says Canfield, who points out that Kings Beach State Recreation Area continues to be one of the high-volume areas that sees a lot of trash.

Unlike at California and Nevada state parks, most U.S. Forest Service parking areas are closed in the winter. Federal lands are open to the public year-round, but parking, trash services and restrooms are closed in the winter, creating both parking problems and litter when people visit.

Nonprofits are also working diligently to solve the issues of litter, including at The Tahoe Fund.

“We saw a limit on the resources that our public land managers have because of COVID, it was like a perfect storm, more people visiting less people to manage. What we need is a cultural shift. We have to get people to realize that it’s a sensitive area. And they can’t treat it like Disneyland, that there isn’t a group of guys in white suits are going to come out as soon as the park closes and clean everything up and make it look brand new the next day,” says Amy Berry, CEO of The Tahoe Fund.

A complex issue
The number of jurisdictions and agencies that manage the Tahoe Sierra number in the dozens making finding a solution to a region-wide issue complex. The region is governed by five counties – Placer, Nevada, Eldorado, Douglas and Washoe – along with the City of South Lake Tahoe, the City of Carson City, the Town of Truckee, and numerous special districts.

Green plastic dog poop bags left lying on a beach at Donner Lake. | by Randy Humphreys

“We’re on our way to really improving cross-jurisdictional collaboration. One of the biggest challenges is there’s no way that town staff or town council can be out in the community enough to see everything that the community sees. We are only as good as the information we have in order to respond to an issue,” says Truckee Mayor Anna Klovstad.

West adds that there are many challenges in navigating all of the jurisdictional agencies in order to organize his underwater clean ups of Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake, but he also recognizes that the jurisdictions around the region are taking more action and responsibility for the trash problems. He says more programs are developing, and locals are willing to put their own time to fight this issue.

“We’re headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, we have mobilized at a time of need, when the fight we are up against is bigger than ever amidst a global pandemic and increasing population. Luckily, our local residents have realized the need to fight this trash issue and are showing their support now more than ever and we need it,” says West.

One example of a collaborative effort is Take Care Tahoe, a partnership group that includes the League to Save Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Fund, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Tahoe Resource Conservation District and Tahoe Sustainability Collaborative. One of its primary goals is working on the trash and environmental issues in the region including the Slediquette Campaign this winter.

“We’ve installed wooden fences with signage to denote places to leave your good sleds and places to leave broken sleds. Signs also offer tips on sledding, using durable sleds made of metal or wood, where to rent sleds, staying safe and reminders for people to take their trash,” explains Movius. Volunteers manage these areas.

“No one organization is going to solve a problem this large all by themselves and so working in partnership with the public agencies, and the private entities are going to be critical, and to me, it’s about creating a culture of caretaking where people understand that there’s a level of respect and care that is required if you live here, or you visit here. It’s going to take a lot of partnerships to make it get better,” says Berry.

Combatting litter
While communities and agencies scramble to clean up winter trash, summer is only a few months away and many wonder if the area is prepared for another onslaught of visitors.

“No Broken Sleds Please.” Is the message getting across? | Courtesy League to Save Lake Tahoe

“We are seeing people taking action. We think that the coverage of this topic has grown and that the word is spreading amongst the community. And having more awareness of the issue creates more action. And everyone can be part of the solution ” explains Movius, citing the work of the Tahoe Blue Crews as an example.

Tahoe Blue Crews is a volunteer effort organized by the League to Save Lake Tahoe to clean up trash throughout the Tahoe Basin year-round. Movius and the League believe that when people see the Tahoe Blue Crew volunteers picking up litter, it will inspire others to take action.

Mayor Klovstad points to a few solutions the Town of Truckee has implemented including installing solar-powered trash compactors in the downtown area and installing cigarette can canisters in key locations. Klovstad applauds Erica Mertens, administrative analyst for the town’s waste management and recycling division, for the Grab a Bag Program she developed. The program has enlisted businesses to hand out garbage bags and gloves to volunteers, who then return the trash to the business for disposal. Some businesses also offer incentives with a discount or small token of appreciation. The town is also using the Click Fix app for residents to use to report litter problems.

The Truckee Donner Parks and Recreation District oversee 14 parks in Truckee, including the piers on Donner Lake. In the fall, it erected signs on each dock asking visitors to clean up their trash. This summer, it plans to install Iron Rangers to collect funds to hire more maintenance staff to pick up litter.

“We have tried to keep the parks available for outdoor recreation and understand the main idea in our parks is pack it in, pack it out. There needs to be some more education to pack it in, pack it out, clean up after yourself. We’re trying to get better at our communication and messaging,” adds Jost.

Truckee Mayor Klovstad would like to see more trash cans installed at local recreation sites, which, like Donner Lake’s piers, are managed independently by Truckee Donner Parks and Recreation.

“How much money did we spend last summer with scuba divers in [Donner Lake] picking up trash off of the lake bottom? I’d much rather pay to have a trash can installed at every dock and pay somebody to pick it up once or twice a week than to have to scuba dive and get it off to the bottom of the lake,” says Klovstad.

Another way the public can help is by reporting litter through the Citizen Scientist Tahoe app. The app, developed by the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, allows people to report litter and lake quality issues, as well as algae blooms.

Moving toward solutions
“It’s a three-part solution: education, enforcement and infrastructure. We don’t have great enforcement. We are working on a proposal right now to look into it how better enforcement might create a cultural shift,” explains Berry. She points out that there’s also a need to build better infrastructure to manage the visitation the region is experiencing, to educate people about the area and to be environmentally responsible.

“I find it frustrating that we have this conversation about trash all the time because we know the solution. More garbage cans and more trash service,” adds Berry. “For years we’ve had this mentality that people should just take what they brought with them. When you have a developed rec site, it’s very natural for people to expect there to be garbage cans at rec sites. I think we are swimming an uphill battle if we think that we’re not going to put garbage cans out and people are just going to take their trash home with them because they’re not going to.”

The Tahoe Fund is also working to address sustainable recreation and over-tourism with local government agencies.

“The goal is to get some buy-in at the senior level on what the core issues are and then assign the sustainable working group the task of putting together an action plan, and the action plan will have short-, intermediate- and long-term solutions to the struggles that everybody sees,” adds Berry.

“We need to help our visitors understand how to treat this community respectfully and help them understand, that this is a beautiful place to visit and worth protecting,” says Klovstad, in echoing some of the same sentiments.

“The trash issue in Tahoe will require every individual to take responsibility,” adds West. “It would absolutely be better to have increased garbage cans in a variety of locations. That does not just mean waste bins. It means correct recycling receptacles.” West says he would also like to stop the sale of plastic sleds around Tahoe and ask businesses to only sell sustainable sleds.

These are some of the many solutions being explored. Some say the need for more trash receptacles in high trafficked areas along with additional service to pick up the garbage is an important key to mitigating trash. Additional restroom facilities, requiring all homes to have bear boxes and increased litter enforcement have also been suggested as remedies that could be effective in reducing litter.

The environment in the Tahoe Sierra is truly the victim here. Trash, graffiti, impacts on wildlife and microplastics in Lake Tahoe will continue to be a problem with the busy summer season only a few months away.

Report trash issues

Citizen Science app | citizensciencetahoe.org
Click Fix app (Truckee) | townoftruckee.com

El Dorado County
Eastern Slope area | (530 573-3450, edcgov.us

Douglas County
Code Enforcement Office | (775) 782-6214, douglascountynv.gov

Nevada County
Illegal dumping | (530) 265-7111, mynevadacounty.com

Placer County
Garbage complaints | (530) 581-6240, placer.ca.gov
Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal | (530) 583-7800, waste101.com

South Lake Tahoe
City of South Lake Tahoe | (530) 542-6000, cityofslt.us
South Tahoe Refuse | (530) 541-5105, southtahoerefuse.com
Clean Tahoe Program | (530) 544-4210, clean-tahoe.org

Town of Truckee Trash complaints | townoftruckee.com
Keep Truckee Green | (530) 582-7700, keeptruckeegreen.org
Truckee-Donner Recreation & Parks District | (530) 582-7720, tdrpd.org

Washoe County
Garbage complaints | (775) 328-6106, washoecounty.us