Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a massive wildfire and early season snowfall, those behind an unprecedented effort to clean up Lake Tahoe's entire 72-mile-long shoreline continue to push forward.
Nonprofit Clean Up the Lake, as of Wednesday, said it has pulled 18,215 pounds of trash out of the water along more than 43.5 miles of shoreline over the past six months.
"Blown away by their resilience, their hard work would just be an absolute understatement," Clean Up the Lake founder and executive director Colin West said of his team.
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Divers combing the shoreline up to depths of 25 feet have found what one would expect to find in a lake that serves as a popular vacation spot: plastic bottles, beer cans and sunglasses. They've also come across some unexpected items, such as poker chips, an international driver's license, a toy BB gun and a barbecue.
Since the 72-mile cleanup effort began May 14, the team has removed at least 21,091 pieces of trash.
"I wish I could say I expected to see less, but we are seeing probably more [trash] that I thought," West said.
For perspective, the team loads the trash into a trailer that's about 12 feet long and 6 to 7 feet tall, and it's been doing that several times over the past six months.
"I would say we fill that 12-foot covered trailer every week," West said.
Clean Up the Lake does sort and categorize the trash before shipping it away. It's also studying the items to both better understand the impact they're having on the lake's renowned clear water and create strategic messaging to inform the public about the consequences of littering.
In the meantime, the nonprofit's focus is on the remaining 28 miles of shoreline that still need to be cleaned up and the next challenge ahead: winter.
"We're choosing those days when the sun is out," West said. "Everyone loves a bluebird day on the mountain. If someone's out there enjoying the sun on the mountain, it's highly likely we're on the lake and under the lake that day."
The weather will ultimately determine when the group finishes, but West is hoping for the end of February.
"I'm almost biting my tongue for saying it just because I wanted to finish this week or next week," he said. "You never know what the world's throwing at you."
Funding for the cleanup campaign came from a variety of places, including Vail Resorts, the Nevada Division of State Lands' Lake Tahoe License Plate Program and other foundations. Nonprofit Tahoe Fund ended up collecting contributions from over 135 individuals and businesses, including Tahoe Blue Vodka, which pitched in $100,000.
"When we agreed to support this project, we knew it was a unique opportunity to contribute to the health of Lake Tahoe," Tahoe Fund Board of Directors Chair Allen Biaggi said in a statement. "It continues to be amazing how much and what type of trash has been recovered. The importance of this work and the value it has to those who love Lake Tahoe was evident when so many individual and corporate donors stepped up to help. It wouldn’t have happened without them."