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California is home to many natural wonders, and it’s not surprising given the state’s immense size and miles of scenic coastline. However, it is still eye-opening when the realization hits that a place like Lake Tahoe doesn’t even reach the top five most visited sites in the state. And while Tahoe doesn’t have the drama of Yosemite National Park or the breathtaking vistas of Malibu’s beaches, there are other stunning and exciting destinations to explore in the Golden State.

It is essential to understand that Lake Tahoe has incredibly pure water. Purity doesn’t necessarily correlate directly with the perceived appearance of the lake. Still, Tahoe’s 99.994% rating could very well be a factor in how picturesque it can be on a sunny June day.

Despite this, Tahoe does have to deal with another significant problem in debris. It’s a cruel bit of irony — Tahoe’s natural beauty has been the driving force for a constant flocking of tourists and weekenders, leading to a disproportionate amount of trash sinking to the lake’s floor. Indeed, the trash could not have been so noticeable if the water had been more discolored and unappealing. But, in the reality where Tahoe is simultaneously gorgeous and polluted, it will rely on the help of organizations like the Clean Up the Lake nonprofit to retain that appeal.

Photo Courtesy Clean Up The Lake

In its recent cleanup operation, the nonprofit organized a group of volunteer scuba divers to submerge themselves in search of debris along the lake’s 72-mile coastline. What was considered debris occupied a wide-ranging definition. Divers found anything from plastic bottles and aluminum cans, to 40-year-old disposable Nikon cameras and lampposts. Even a handful of discarded engagement rings were found on the lake’s floor, leading one to wonder how many failed proposals have taken place lakeside over the last few decades. Perhaps this could sign to all California-based hopefuls that a Tahoe proposal might be somewhat cliche at this point. 

All in all, the operation was a massive success. After 80 days of cleanup, divers for Clean Up the Lake were able to remove as many as 24,797 trash items from Tahoe’s depths for a total of 25,281 pounds of debris. Without the nonprofit’s organizational prowess and the efforts of an unknown number of talented volunteer divers, this debris would otherwise pose a direct risk to the health of the surrounding marine ecosystem. The discarded anchors probably wouldn’t be too much of a hindrance to the wide variety of trout and whitefish swimming nearby.  However, the plastic six-pack containers are known to severely harm creatures that try to eat them or become entangled. 

Photo Courtesy Freysteinn G. Jonsson

Although the sheer quantity of recovered trash is far from ideal, organizers like Clean Up the Lake’s Colin West are hesitant to attribute this to malice on the part of Tahoe’s thousands of annual patrons. “You might find five or six beer cans in one area,” he said, indicating the tendency of boaters to get a bit too lost in the details when having a good time. “But the sunglasses, the cellphones, the hats, the construction material — a lot of this has happened accidentally or from windstorms. No one is trying to lose a boat anchor.”

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