Upper Truckee Marsh restoration gets underway, historic environmental upgrade

The Upper Truckee River Marsh where it intersects with Lake Tahoe - photo: League to Save Lake Tahoe

The Upper Truckee River begins to coalesce at the southern edge of the Lake Tahoe Basin, just below Red Lake Peak, around 10,000 feet above sea level. The serpentine little river never really carves much of a canyon and flows 12 miles as the crow flies down to Lake Tahoe at 6,220 ft. Of the sixty three streams that flow into the lake, the Upper Truckee drains the largest sub watershed in the Tahoe Basin and is also the most disturbed by human activity.

Before 1959 and the construction of the Lake Tahoe Airport and the Tahoe Keys development, the Upper Truckee followed a mostly natural course, and just as the river bed nears the lake, water flowed into the largest marsh barrier system in the Sierra Nevada range at the southern shore of Lake Tahoe, the Upper Truckee Marsh.

“Everything used to be this like beach barrier lagoon system, which is a super unique system,” said Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer for League to Save Lake Tahoe in a phone interview. “You know, where the river breaks through occasionally in a big year maybe, but otherwise it just kind of collects in all these lagoons and deltas down by the water where tons of waterfowl and other birds come and provide all this wildlife habitat and all this other stuff, and it filters all the water before it gets to Lake Tahoe itself. It filters out all the dirt and nutrients of pollution.”

The Upper Truckee used to terminate in the marsh. Since construction of the Tahoe Keys, the channelized river runs straight into the lake, along with sediment and other non-point source pollutants.

The 1950s and ‘60s were not kind to the Upper Truckee River and Marsh. In 1959, the Lake Tahoe Airport and a 1.3 mile runway rerouted the river. The same year, one half of the 1,600 acre marsh along the lake shore was dug up and converted into the Tahoe Keys development, one of the more environmentally and ecologically destructive human projects in Lake Tahoe history.

“The Upper Truckee River, man, when they got to where it was going to the Keys, at that point in time they just shotgunned  straight into the lake, just channelized it,” said Patterson. “Then they filled in that whole marsh and then stretched it out and built the Keys on it. It totally altered the function of that entire system. You took away half to two thirds of the natural filtration system for the lake and then added all the pollution from an airport and the Tahoe Keys on top of it.”

The beginning of environmental and ecological awareness in the Lake Tahoe Basin coincided with the development of projects like the Tahoe Keys in the early 1960s and the rapid expansion of gaming and ski resorts.

League to Save Lake Tahoe was founded in 1957.

The states of California and Nevada created a bi-state compact, which formed the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency or TRPA. Congress ratified the compact in 1969.

The California Tahoe Conservancy is a state agency established in 1985. The agency manages California’s restoration and enhancement activities in the Basin.

The Conservancy is the lead agency in the ongoing restoration of the Upper Truckee River and Marsh, and according to Conservancy watershed program supervisor Stewart Roll, redirecting the Upper Truckee into the remaining marsh is momentous.

“It’s definitely gonna be a significant advancement for lake clarity largely because this marsh is the largest natural water filter that there is in the lake,” Roll said by phone. “Both Trout Creek and the Upper Truckee River flow through the marsh, and those are the two largest watersheds that actually drain about 30 percent of the land area of Lake Tahoe.

“So if you think about it from that perspective, essentially a third of the land area of Lake Tahoe runs through the marsh and it’s filtered by this area. So from that perspective, the water cleansing and filtration capability of the marsh is really unmatched in the basin.”

Reducing the amount of water-clouding silt flowing into the lake will help improve clarity, but clear water is only one objective of marsh and river restoration. For Stewart Roll and the Conservancy, this is an eco-restoration project.

“Water quality is very important in Lake Tahoe, and lots of folks like to think of the marsh as an important filter. And that’s certainly one of the functions that it provides. But from an ecological perspective, it’s way deeper than that,” Roll said.

“We lost 75 percent of our marshlands in Tahoe due to development. They’re also one of the most important habitats for a wide variety of species. Over half the species (in the basin) use these wetland areas like the marsh for parts of their life-cycle. So the ecological significance is just so great because of the uniqueness of this area and because of the high quality habitat it is able to provide.

“So while we always think about water quality, and the filtration function is really valuable, it’s really an eco-restoration project, and its prime goals are making sure that we can support ecosystems and the wildlife that we’ve all come to enjoy.”

The Restoration of the Upper Truckee Marsh gets underway in May of 2020 and is expected to be complete by May of 2023.

Funding for the $11.5 million dollar project has been cobbled together from a variety of sources. The Conservancy is providing funds from California Propositions 12, 40, 50, 68, and 84, and from the Habitat Conservation Fund. Additional funding comes from the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the USDA Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The project has a couple key elements. The first is to create a new pilot channel network. The plan calls for the construction of new pilot channels connecting the existing Upper Truckee River to historic remnant channels in the center of the marsh.

The aim is to bring water back to areas of the marsh that have traditionally been dried for grazing during warmer months.

“This pilot channel system will help re-wet these areas, bring the water back to where it flowed before the historic disturbances and will really help make those habitats more vibrant, the vegetation more vibrant and help really restore the type of geomorphic setting we had before, which is more of a Delta as opposed to a single thread channel.”

The Upper Truckee River Marsh – photo: League to Save Lake Tahoe

The Sailing Lagoon

One of the significant elements of the marsh restoration is reconstruction of the sailing lagoon in the dune area by the Tahoe Keys.

“What happened there is a little bit different in that – that area was actually directly manipulated as part of the Tahoe Keys development,” Roll said. “This lagoon was dredged out. And there were areas that were filled in order to actually build future condominiums. So in that area, we’re actually going to construct a bulkhead so that that lagoon is no longer connected to the Tahoe Keys.

“We’re going to remove all the fill that was placed back in the 60s and put that into the lagoon so that essentially we have a functioning wetland in an area that’s now an aquatic invasive species lagoon. So all of that area will become functional marsh wetland like the rest of the marsh in that area.”

The sailing lagoon is marked in red below. To the right of the marked area is where the channelized Upper Truckee now enters Lake Tahoe. The river flow will be redirected into the center of the marsh as part of the restoration. The lagoon area will once again become part of the marsh.

Climate resiliency

Marsh restoration is intended to make the ecosystem more resilient to the effects of a warming climate. Models and growing empirical evidence show that extended drought and large precipitation events are predicted with increasing severity as time passes.

“By making the marsh wetter and by making it function with stronger vegetation and higher quality habitats and so forth, it will be able to actually provide higher quality habitat even in those extended dry periods. Much more so than if it were in the sort of impaired, dried out condition it is right now,” said Stewart Roll. “And then the stronger vegetation is really critical to stabilizing the marsh and allowing it to pop back up after other extreme events, whether they be large precipitation events or fires or those types of things.”

A changing climate requires an adaptive strategy

“Mother Nature is essentially driving the ship here and with climate change, there are certainly some unknowns about Mother Nature moving forward,” Roll said. “So that adaptive capability, the resource monitoring, and the fact that we need to work together as an entire basin on these watershed efforts is really what’s going to be critical to the long term success.”

A big problem requires a big solution – a generational process

Upper Truckee River restoration has been going on for 40 years. Marsh restoration is one of the final pieces. As many as 7 reaches of the Upper Truckee have been identified for conservation efforts and are either complete or in process.

As lead agency, the California Tahoe Conservancy has had to corral a lot of different agencies and stakeholders within the entire Upper Truckee watershed abstract, which is almost the entire South Shore area. A cursory list of stakeholders include: federal agencies, TRPA, 2 states, subsidiary municipalities, League to Save Lake Tahoe, and a dizzying number of interlaced private property owners and neighborhood associations.

Science guided the project’s development. Building consensus around a sprawling, scientifically complex restoration project needed a thoughtful and thorough approach, and perhaps more than any ingredient, time.

“It actually started way back in the 1980s, if you can believe that, with early property acquisition,” said Stewart Roll. “The Conservancy has really been targeting some of the sensitive lands really since our inception in the mid-80s, so that’s really when it started.

“We completed an initial phase of restoration in 2001, known as the Lower Westside Project. And after that, we really have launched this, this effort that is currently going into construction. And it is quite a process.”

A balance of priorities, economic and environmental

Lake Tahoe’s economic impact on the region has been estimated to be around $5 billion dollars a year, a geo-tourism-based economy.

“We really feel like these projects are critical to keep the interest of the visitors coming here and also the quality of life for the residents here,” Roll said about the balancing act between environmental and economic outcomes.

“So sometimes there’s a trade off there, but a lot of times they actually kind of go hand-in-hand and have similar benefits … so yeah, we try to do a good balancing act.”

League to Save Lake Tahoe’s Jesse Patterson says his organization takes a holistic view of restoration that includes the economy and quality of life for locals among environmental priorities. The goal of restoration is not to return the area to its pristine, undeveloped state. Patterson says League to Save Lake Tahoe activism has evolved, and that the protracted Upper Truckee restoration process is a model for restoration projects everywhere.

“Our organization’s kind of always been focused on that balance, Patterson said. “And that was a bit of an evolution. I mean, I admit, when we formed 57 years ago, the only way anyone would listen to us was with a lawsuit, right? And you don’t have to always do that now. Still a powerful tool and a good one when needed, but it’s more about the getting involved up front and having a sound basis for why you’re doing it and letting the science guide it and having sound principles about why you’re doing it … there’s a lot of places that still need improvement.”


Brian Bahouth has been a public media journalist since 1994 and has lived in Reno since 2000. He first came to northern Nevada to be news director at KUNR, Reno Public Radio and has subsequently filed scores of reports for National Public Radio, Nevada Public Radio, Capital Public Radio and KVMR in Nevada City, California. He is co-founder of KNVC community radio in Carson City. Support his work.