New Restoration Effort Would Give Big Boost to Lake Tahoe Watershed

A large tract of land has been purchased along the Upper Truckee River in the hope of running restoration projects to aid the watershed and improve Lake Tahoe’s prized clarity. Nicole Cartwright of the Tahoe Resource Conservation District explains what comes next.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Johnson Meadow, a 206-acre property in South Lake Tahoe recently purchased by the Tahoe Resource Conservation District.Courtesy of the Tahoe Resource Conservation District.

Conservationists in the Lake Tahoe region are celebrating the acquisition by the Tahoe Resource Conservation District of a 206-acre property, Johnson Meadow, in South Lake Tahoe. The property is a key piece of the puzzle for conservation groups who are working to restore the Upper Truckee River watershed and help improve Lake Tahoe’s famous clarity, which has been on the decline in recent decades.

Johnson Meadow contains 9 miles of the Upper Truckee River, the largest watershed in the basin, just before it empties into Lake Tahoe. The river is the main pathway for fine sediment to reach the lake, which impacts its clarity. Restoration efforts are aimed at restoring highly eroded stream banks, providing wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities and reconnecting the meadow with its floodplain.

The property was purchased from the Mosher family, who owned it for nearly a century, at a cost of $8.3 million. The money was raised through a collaboration between Tahoe Resource Conservation District, which is a special district established by the state to work on local conservation issues, and the nonprofit Tahoe Fund, as well as two state agencies – the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Tahoe Conservancy.

Water Deeply spoke with Nicole Cartwright, executive director of the Tahoe Resource Conservation District, about the agency’s plans for restoration in the Tahoe basin.

Water Deeply: How did you come to purchase the property and why is it important?

Nicole Cartwright: There has been a very large effort from a lot of different partners and agencies – state, federal, local – to restore the Upper Truckee River. Over time, land along chunks of that river have been purchased by different groups and are in some process of restoration.

For this section that we purchased, there have been discussions with the family that owned it for the past 20 years. They really want to make sure it’s not developed and it remains a beautiful open space and it has the ability to have restoration. This is our first piece of property that Tahoe Resource Conservation District has owned. But we’re not new to protecting our natural resources. Every Resource Conservation District does things a little differently, but we are locally governed and we are very nimble and adaptive and we are looking forward to this new challenge.

A map of restoration efforts in the Upper Truckee River watershed. (Courtesy of Tahoe Resource Conservation District)

Water Deeply: What restoration plans do you have for Johnson Meadow?

Cartwright: Our goals are to preserve and enhance wildlife habitat and open space, to prevent additional environmental degradation and to provide public access by creating connectivity to the Upper Truckee River and all of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The property has about a mile and a half of river that is currently deeply channelized and has had pretty massive stream erosion over time.

We’re hoping with the restoration we’ll elongate that and make it more meandering and increase that floodplain to get rid of the deep, channelized gully.

The wildlife habitat is also important. Being up at a high elevation, we have the opportunity to potentially be a refuge for other wildlife as temperatures rise with climate change.

Water Deeply: What kind of species are there now?

Cartwright: Currently there are populations of goshawk and bald eagle, bears, coyote, deer and Lahontan cutthroat trout, which are rare in this region. There are also lots of other native fishes and there’s a huge potential to have willow flycatcher habitat.

Water Deeply: Why is sediment a concern?

Cartwright: Lake Tahoe is referred to as the “Jewel of the Sierra” because of its high clarity. But over time there has been development, stream erosion and other human impacts that have contributed to fine sediments getting into the water.

The Upper Truckee River watershed used to have a massive marsh at the end of it but there was some pretty massive development in the 1960s called the Tahoe Keys. They dredged out the natural meadows and wetlands and built houses that had fingerling canals behind them.

That was a huge setback for this watershed, because it removed the natural filtration and the river itself was being channelized. That mistake was made, some would say, but now we have an opportunity to contain additional fine sediment and rethink how the river itself is flowing in order to have fine sediments settle out.

All of that boils down to lake clarity and wanting to keep that very high.

Water Deeply: What has the property historically been used for?

Cartwright: In the past century it’s been in the Mosher-Johnson family and they originally had a dairy out there and then moved to cattle grazing. Over time, as environmental mindsets changed, cattle grazing became more difficult because of regulations and so they have moved their cattle out of Tahoe, probably 40 years ago.

There hasn’t been grazing in quite some time, but you can definitely see some of the remnants. Although they did a great job, they were always trying to take care of the property. They protected the river from the cattle once they were told they were eroding the stream banks – [the family] was always trying to be good stewards of the land.

An area of Johnson Meadow in the Upper Truckee River watershed where restoration efforts are planned. (Courtesy of Tahoe Resource Conservation District)

Water Deeply: I know that this property is just one part of a larger, regional conservation effort in the watershed. Are there other parcels that would be good to acquire and restore?

Cartwright: There are still some smaller, private parcels that are on the river that would be great to either acquire or work with the owners through the restoration process.

There has been a large effort from other partners on the Upper Truckee River working group to talk to those private property owners about restoration. Those wheels are in motion.

Water Deeply: What are you hoping Johnson Meadow will look like in 10 or 20 years?

Cartwright: I have a vision of really having some sustainable recreation access. Maybe long boardwalks that allow for the river to meander underneath it while there is informational signage about the different birds and wildlife and fish that are in the area. I really see it looking very similar to how it is today, except that the stream is moving in more of a natural way.

Even now, when you walk out there, it’s breathtaking. You can come to a point where you overlook the whole property and it’s pretty special to have that much river and wetland and meadow right in the heart of the city of South Lake Tahoe.

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