Lake Tahoe waters plummet as drought, climate change plague resort

Alex Wigglesworth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

LOS ANGELES — Lake Tahoe’s water level has dropped so low that water is no longer flowing into the Truckee River, and salmon aren’t expected to spawn in a major tributary this year.

Some boat ramps and docks are hundreds of feet from the water line, and clumps of stringy algae have been washing up on beaches, said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the University of California, Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

“It’s putting us on warning that things could get a lot worse,” he said.

The receding water level, which is driven by climate change and drought, comes as the latest insult to the treasured tourist destination nestled in the Sierra Nevada. Already its waters have been clouded by smoke and ash from multiple wildfires this summer.

Lake Tahoe’s water level is always fluctuating. It is typically lowest in December and January and then increases in the spring as melting snow from nearby mountains flows down, Schladow said.

“This year, we didn’t get that bump,” he said. “It was more or less dropping since the previous year.”


Multiple boat ramps were unable to open for the summer season.

And with no game-changing precipitation, conditions have continued to worsen. The water level is usually somewhere between the lake’s natural rim, which sits at 6,223 feet, and a dam at the top of the Truckee River that is 6 feet higher, Schladow said. But last week, it dropped just below the rim. By Saturday afternoon, the water level was roughly half an inch below the rim — and falling, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

That’s because the lake each year loses about 6 feet of water from evaporation — a rate of about a quarter-inch a day, which can increase with high winds, Schladow said.

“If this next year is just an average year, or worse, a dry year, it probably means that the water level this time next year will be maybe something like four feet below the rim,” he said. “And if the next year is dry, it sort of continues.”


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