They found no trace of a mythical sea monster, no sign of gangsters wearing concrete shoes, or long-lost treasure chests.
But the divers who spent a year cleaning up Lake Tahoe’s entire 72-mile (115-kilometer) shoreline came away with what they hope will prove far more valuable: tons and tons of trash.
In addition to removing 25,000 pounds (11,339 kilograms) of underwater trash since last May, divers and volunteers meticulously sorted and recorded the types and GPS locations of the trash.
The dozens of dives that ended this week were part of a first-of-its-kind effort to learn more about the source and potential damage caused by plastics and other pollutants in the legendary alpine lake on the California-Nevada line.
It also took organizers on a journey through the history, folklore and development of the lake atop the Sierra Nevada which holds enough water to cover all of California at 14 inches (36 centimeters) deep.
The Washoe tribe fished the turquoise-blue Tahoe for centuries before westward expansion in the mid-1800s brought railroads, lumber barons and eventually Gatsby-style decadence to what became a playground for the rich and famous.
Tahoe’s first casino was built in 1902 by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who owned much of East Los Angeles and built the important Santa Anita Racecourse in 1907. Huge waterfront estates of the lake have followed for decades, including one used for the filming of “Godfather II.”
Cleanup organizers say one of the things locals ask the most is whether they’ve found any gangster remains near the North Rim. This is where Frank Sinatra lost his gambling license for allegedly fraternizing with organized crime bosses at his Cal-Neva hotel-casino in the 1960s.
The recovered debris consisted mostly of things like bottles, tires, fishing gear and sunglasses.
But Colin West, founder of the nonprofit environmental group that launched the project, Clean Up the Lake, said there were a few surprises.
Divers believe they’ve spotted wreckage boards near Dead Man’s Point, where tribal tales tell of a Loch-Ness-Monster-like creature – later dubbed “Tahoe Tessie” – living beneath Cave Rock.
They also discovered a few “No Littering” signs, engine blocks, lamp posts, a diamond ring, and “those funny fake plastic owls that sit on boats to scare the birds away,” West said.
“It’s shocking how much trash has accumulated beneath what appears to be such a pristine lake,” said Matt Levitt, founder and CEO of Tahoe Blue Vodka, which contributed $100,000 to the cleanup.
His businesses are among many – including hotels, casinos and ski resorts – that depend on the more than 15 million people who visit each year to soak up the sights that Mark Twain described in “Roughing It” in 1872 as “the fairest image that the whole earth offers”. “
“It’s our economic engine,” Levitt said.
And while most contributors and volunteers were motivated primarily to help beautify the lake, it’s what happens once the trash is piled ashore that excites scientists.
Shoreline cleanups have taken place across the country for years, from Arizona to the Great Lakes, Pennsylvania and Florida. But this waste goes into recycling bins and garbage bags for disposal.
Each piece of 189 separate Tahoe dives to depths of 25 feet (8 meters) was mapped by GPS and meticulously divided into categories including plastic, metal and fabric.
Plastics are critical as international research increasingly shows that certain types can break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics.
Scientists are still studying the extent and human damage caused by the tiny pieces. But the National Academy of Sciences said in December that the United States – the world’s biggest producer of plastic waste – should reduce plastics production because so much waste ends up in oceans and waterways.
Zoe Harrold, a biochemist, led scientists at the Desert Research Institute in Reno who first documented microplastics in Tahoe in 2019. She was the lead author of Clean Up the Lake’s 2021 report on a 6-year pilot project. miles (10 kilometers).
“If left in place, the continued degradation of submerged trash, especially plastic and rubber, will continue to slowly release microplastics and leachate into the azure waters of Lake Tahoe,” Harrold wrote.
The cleanup comes half a century after scientists began measuring Tahoe’s waning clarity as the basin began to experience explosive growth.
Most credit, or blame, the completion of the interstate system for the 1960 Winter Olympics near Tahoe City. The very first on TV, it introduced the world to the lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
From 1960 to 1980, Tahoe’s population grew from 10,000 to 50,000 – 90,000 in summer, according to the US Geological Survey. Peak days are now approaching 300,000.
“The majority of what we take away is a result of human impact from recreation, living and building community here in the Lake Tahoe area,” West said.
His group is planning dives this year at other Sierra lakes, including June Lake east of Yosemite National Park, and will expand future Tahoe searches to deeper depths.
The nonprofit Tahoe Fund, which also helped raise $100,000 for the cleanup effort, is commissioning artists to create a sculpture out of Tahoe trash at an event center under construction in Stateline, on the south shore of the lake.
“Our hope is that it will inspire greater environmental stewardship and remind those who love Lake Tahoe that it is up to all of us to take care of it,” said Tahoe Fund CEO Amy Berry.