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Seasonal and long-term clarity trend assessment of Lake Tahoe, California–Nevada

July 20, 2022

The clarity of Lake Tahoe, observed using a Secchi disk on a regular basis since the late 1960s, continues to be a sentinel metric of lake health. Water clarity is influenced by physical and biological processes and has declined in the five decades of monitoring, revealing differences between summer (June–September) and winter (December–March). This document summarizes key findings of a study of Lake Tahoe water clarity, including long-term variability and the relative importance of several influencing variables and processes.

This study, prepared in cooperation with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, focused on (1) an apparent divergence in clarity trends between summer and winter periods, (2) observed changes in in-lake physical and ecological variables that may influence or control seasonal and annual clarity trends, and (3) five research hypotheses regarding lake clarity that were developed by Lake Tahoe management agencies. Previously collected data were used to complete this study. Trend analysis confirmed that winter clarity stabilized (that is, there is no longer a statistically significant trend up or down) during the last 20 years. Evaluation of clarity for selected months in the 50-year Secchi disk clarity dataset showed that only two summer months, July and August, had statistically significant decreases in clarity from 2000–19. Different subsets of available data were analyzed to reveal the presence or absences of trends for each season, decade, and month.

Five hypotheses related to lake clarity were part of the study described by this report. Hypothesis 1 stated that clarity is controlled predominantly by the distribution and volumetric density of fine particles in suspension. This hypothesis was studied using available data describing in-lake fine (0–20 micrometers) particles from 2008–19. Water clarity was negatively correlated with in-lake particle abundance, with particles in the 1.0-4.6 μm range having the greatest effect, consistent with light-scattering theory. Estimated abundances of diatoms of the genus Cyclotella also were found to be negatively correlated with clarity.

Data limitations precluded a complete investigation of hypothesis 2, which stated that the observed improvements in winter water clarity are a response to decreasing fine suspended-sediment concentrations in the lake resulting from load reductions from upland sources in and near urbanized areas. Data describing fine-sediment loading from urban areas to the lake were only available since 2014, and only once or twice per month. A slight, statistically significant, negative correlation was identified between urban fine-particle loading and monthly lake clarity with a 4-month lag. Particle abundance in monitored streams is highly correlated with simultaneous particle abundance in the lake.

Hypothesis 3 stated that changing hydrodynamic conditions in the lake are increasing thermal stability and resistance to mixing. Trend analyses performed on stability index and buoyancy frequency time series computed from long-term observations of lake temperatures support the hypothesis that hydrodynamic conditions have evolved since 1969 to increase the lake’s resistance to mixing. The date of maximum mixing in winter has become progressively earlier in the year. Lake density stratification, defined using the stability index, is commencing earlier in the year and extending a month longer than in the early years of the monitoring program.

Hypothesis 4 stated that the trend of decreasing summer clarity is a result of earlier, prolonged, and more intense stratification. Statistically significant correlations were found between summer clarity and (1) date of onset of stratification, (2) duration of stratification, and (3) buoyancy frequency.

Hypothesis 5 stated that ecological (food web) interactions are causing changes in the trends of seasonal or annual clarity; data supporting hypothesis 5 were limited to examples from other systems and to intermittent monitoring of Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay. The resulting narrative assessment was motivated by a 6-year study of Mysis shrimp disappearance and return in Emerald Bay. The available data and a large body of published literature are consistent with the inference that Mysis shrimp-induced food web changes are causing changes in the trends of seasonal or annual clarity. This food-web study focused on the relations between introduced Mysis shrimp, the native cladocerans (Daphnia and Bosmina) that were largely eliminated following Mysis introduction, and the effect on fine particles within the lake. The records of Mysis and other zooplankton data for Lake Tahoe are episodic and have large gaps. Consequently, statistical analyses could not be conducted to compare zooplankton data with other variables. The long-term record, however, indicates that the key effect was a change to the phytoplankton assemblage, where larger diatoms disappeared, likely due to Mysis grazing, only to be replaced by Cyclotella that are an order-of-magnitude smaller and have increased the abundance and volumetric density of total fine particles in suspension (biotic and abiotic).

Publication Year 2022
Title Seasonal and long-term clarity trend assessment of Lake Tahoe, California–Nevada
DOI 10.3133/sir20225070
Authors Ramon C. Naranjo, Paul Work, Alan Heyvaert, Geoffrey Schladow, Alicia Cortes, Shohei Watanabe, Lidia Tanaka, Sebnem Elci
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2022-5070
Index ID sir20225070
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center; Nevada Water Science Center