Undoing a legacy of destruction: Conservancy works to restore Upper Truckee Marsh

The Upper Truckee Marsh. | California Tahoe Conservancy

Tucked between Tahoe Keys and Regan Beach in South Lake Tahoe, sits the Upper Truckee Marsh and its primary water source, the Upper Truckee River, the largest stream flowing into Lake Tahoe

The marsh once included more than 1,600 acres of wetland, which was an effective water filter that helped maintain Lake Tahoe’s water clarity by removing nutrients that cause algae growth. But the construction of the human-made Tahoe Keys in the 1950s and 60s destroyed more than 500 acres of that important resource.

Now, the California Tahoe Conservancy is in the process of restoring and enhancing 250 acres of the marsh by replacing bare fill dirt with vegetation and by providing the opportunity for more water from the Upper Truckee River to enter the remaining marsh area increasing its filtering capability and enhancing the area for wildlife.

The Upper Truckee River
The Upper Truckee River begins high in the mountains about 23 miles to the south of Lake Tahoe. Those who have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) have seen its beginning just a few miles north of Carson Pass. There a small pond near a saddle offers the view of Round Top peak and fields of purple iris. Then just a small stream, it drops down to Meiss Meadows, where it gathers more flow from the high snow-covered ridges above it and passes prolific July wildflower displays before becoming a potentially wet crossing of the now combined PCT/Tahoe Rim Trail.

While the once-immense marsh has been reduced in size, the Upper Truckee still creates a ribbon of wetlands through the middle of Tahoe’s biggest urban area.

The Upper Truckee then drops down swiftly to Christmas Valley on the beginning of its grand tour of the South Lake Tahoe urban region. It crosses Highway 50 before passing the Lake Tahoe Golf Course where it is treated to the sound of people swearing after attempting to hit little white balls. Next stop is the edge of the South Lake Tahoe Airport before crossing Highway 50 again to reach the Upper Truckee Marsh and Lake Tahoe.

While the once-immense marsh has been reduced in size, the Upper Truckee still creates a ribbon of wetlands through the middle of Tahoe’s biggest urban area. As a lifelong North Tahoe resident, I hate to admit I really didn’t know much about the river or its close connection to both South Lake Tahoe and the health of Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. Sure, I’d crossed it many times while avoiding the buzz of skeeters in Meiss Meadows on the Tahoe Rim Trail, but as far as I knew, after that it disappeared. Once I discovered its true importance while researching this story, I decided to paddle it.

Paddling the Upper Truckee
It was a cloudy and cool morning when we set out to kayak, which was bad news and good news. It was not warm enough to entice a swim, but the temps kept the crowds away, giving us several hours on the river without another paddler in sight. We put in near the end of Venice Road just to the east of the Tahoe Keys Marina. This is also where the half-mile-long trail to Cove East Beach begins.

We were less than 1 mile from Lake Tahoe, so we headed upstream for a while. For those with more time, you can make a day of it and paddle all the way to Meyers. Be sure to check the flows to make sure there is the Goldilocks amount of river flow: not too much so it gets dangerous or too low that you regularly ground or need to do some portaging.

The river in mid-June was rolling along about 100 cfs, enough to cover the obstacles and allow us to cruise along without getting stuck on sand bars, but certainly not too raging. We crossed over and under several downed trees until we reached a submerged tree that took up a good portion of the river and made more upstream paddling not our cup of tea. We turned around and gently floated downstream, now with a chance to really enjoy the scenery. Birds were constant companions: osprey, red-winged blackbirds, ibis and an active group of black-winged magpies with their snowy black and white plumage — and, of course, geese, geese, geese. At Tahoe, they are like bears: everywhere.

To our downstream right was the pleasant marshy area of pines and willows at the edge of the Upper Truckee Marsh. To the left, signs of civilization could occasionally be seen above the banks, as could a beautiful view of Mount Tallac’s perfectly timed snow cross. While unseen from the river, that western side of the route was also where a major restoration effort was underway. As we neared Lake Tahoe a few small off-shoot bays could be seen with several grade-control structures built to control the flow of water in the marsh.

Entering the lake was quite fascinating. There were sand bars dotted with birds, marshy areas between the sand bars, and shoreline and channels into the lake on both the west and east side of the sand bars. Since it is so shallow, I’m sure the view must change dramatically with every rise or fall of the lake’s level. I was enamored with my first opportunity to paddle into Lake Tahoe from a stream (not counting those springtime 100-yard quick forays up and back on Blackwood and Ward creeks).

Once into the lake, we paddled east enjoying views of the wave of purple lupine on the beach leading up to the large patch of green marsh, which provides a lovely break between housing on both sides.

Restoring the Truckee Marsh
California Tahoe Conservancy understands the importance of enhancing the Upper Truckee Marsh as it is wrapping up its third and final year of construction projects on 500 acres adjacent to the Tahoe Keys Marina. There are two goals for this project: First, on the western side of the Upper Truckee, they are revegetating and repairing a filled area with the hopes of returning it to its former roll as a part of the marsh land. Second, on the eastern side, they plan to bring more water into the marsh area to enhance its filtering capability and improve wildlife habitat.

When Tahoe Keys was built, a chunk of the marsh was eliminated and replaced by homes, paved streets and lagoons that have become shallower and thus warmer over the years. The Upper Truckee was straightened as part of the development effort and fill was taken out of where the Tahoe Keys is and placed into the marsh area.

“We are rewetting the marsh. It was once a delta,” said Stuart Roll, senior environmental scientist and supervisor for California Tahoe Conservancy. “There were two main impacts of the Keys development. We lost a lot of wetland and the marsh became drier with less flows.”

Between the Upper Truckee River and Tahoe Keys Marina, there were about 23 acres of land that was the depository for a lot of the fill that was removed to create the bays in Tahoe Keys. The land was planned for development, but instead it was purchased by California Tahoe Conservancy as part of the 500-plus acres they acquired in the marsh area.

In the early 2000s more than 8,000 dump trucks of fill were removed from the southern 11.5 acres of the area and the parcel was revegetated with water-loving plants. The channel of the Upper Truckee was then modified to allow water to flow into this area during periods of high water. The water would then circulate through the area slowly and eventually go back into the river. This effort has been successful; aerial images show that the area does get wet and plant growth is extensive where it was once devoid of vegetation. As water is absorbed by plants and then returned into the drainage, it becomes cleaner before entering the lake.

Now the northernmost 12 acres are in the process of being restored. This bit of land has an extra challenge, as well as an opportunity. It included a 3-acre, human-created body of shallow warm water that was full of invasive plants known as the sailing lagoon, and another 9 acres of land covered in fill with little in the way of plant growth. The Conservancy used the material from the 9-acre portion to fill in the man-made lagoon.

The entire 12 acres was then contoured so that water from the Upper Truckee could meander through the property when the river runs high. More than 70,000 water-loving plants were planted and will begin to transition to a marsh-like ecosystem once the water passes through the land on a regular basis.

In addition, the new Cove East trail was created close to where we put in our kayaks at the end of Venice Road. The trail has been completed to the beach, with plans to expand it.

Restoring the river
California Tahoe Conservancy and partner California Department of General Services have also constructed new channels at a major bend in the river. During high water these channels will deliver water from the Upper Truckee across the marsh to join Trout Creek, which also feeds the marsh. About 200 acres, some of which has partially dried out due to a lack of water, will be the beneficiary of the new channels. The channels were installed last year and already began wetting the area in October 2021. According to Roll, more water provides for a healthier marsh and will allow the marsh to “bound back better after floods and withstand droughts.”

When we paddled the Upper Truckee, we saw several grade-control structures that look like little dams or wooden bridges. These were built to complement the channels that bring water into the marsh and are designed to help control how fast water flows through the marsh and back into the Upper Truckee where it soon reaches Lake Tahoe. The goal is to allow the water to stay longer in the marsh where it will support vegetation and become cleaner before reaching the lake.

Eventually all this work should return the remaining marsh land to the condition it once had before the Tahoe Keys was built.

“It is in good shape now,” said Roll. “There is a concentration of wildlife including unusual and migratory birds like cranes and pelicans. It is a great potential recreational resource, as well, and is being managed for the balance of benefits of wildlife and recreation.”

The Upper Truckee Marsh restoration is just one of 10 projects the California Tahoe Conservancy is working on to restore the Upper Truckee watershed. These projects include meadow restoration projects high up in the mountains and in the middle of the urban core, as well as a bike trail and city park development. | tahoe.ca.gov