Hey everyone, I’m Alex Hoeft, news reporter with Moonshine Ink. Today’s Moonshine Minutes story is all about the data, so it’s important to note that for a full understanding of the numbers gathered for this piece, you’ll need to visit moonshineink.com and read Is Tahoe Actually More Crowded This Summer?
Tahoe has seen many crowds this summer, and because COVID-19 has been breathing down the necks of everyone across the world, lots of people are spending time outside, amping up noise, traffic, and pollution in the area. And residents are getting fed up.
Jim Mapes, resident of Incline Village, told Moonshine, “It’s like the Fourth of July every day.”
Kat Teichner, who lives in the Cedar Flat neighborhood, says she doesn’t feel comfortable going to her local grocery store in Tahoe City. “Yesterday I went to Carson [City] … It takes me an hour to get there [but] I’d rather go there than Safeway with all the tourists.”
While scuttlebutt says the crowds have swelled this pandemic summer, the data tracking how many people are here points to a decrease overall, as compared to last year. It’s important to note that the data used for this piece covers a range of months for different metric points — all the way back in April for short-term rentals to the first couple weeks of August for calls into emergency responders.
Some hypothesize that the type or behavior of visitors has shifted — with more permanent second home owners and an increase of day trippers. Overall, it’s an ambiguous picture that local jurisdictions are grappling to understand.
Cindy Gustafson, supervisor for Placer County, said, “It seems contradictory. A lot of houses are occupied, we can see that in our neighborhoods and people report that they’re seeing houses in their neighborhood that they haven’t seen occupied like this before. Then you dive into the data and it doesn’t correlate with all of this.”
So let’s talk numbers:
First, we looked to where visitors might lay their heads. A useful source is the Transient Occupancy Tax, paid by guests in short-term rentals. The TOT is documented quarterly, with the most recent quarter encompassing April 1 to June 30. The quarter encompassing the bulk of summer visitors, from July through September, won’t have data available for another few months.
From April through June, Truckee was down 59% from the same quarter in 2019. Eastern Placer saw its own plunge in the TOT collection: dropping to $1.1 million from 2019’s $3.6 million.
There are a few asterisks with the TOT: One, of course, is that COVID-19 and the resulting closures affected the number of people visiting the area in springtime. Additionally, the TOT does not measure property owners who might normally rent their homes but instead are living in them nor lodging being rented for longer than 30 days — both of which could add additional bodies to Tahoe without contributing money to the TOT.
Another way to gauge the volume of people in an area is to track the amount of water that is flushed and gushed. According to influent flow data (think toilets and showers) from the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency’s water reclamation plant, there have been less people here this year, as compared to last.
The TTSA wastewater treatment facility is seeing roughly 570,000 gallons of sewage flow per day less than seen last year; that number is equivalent to about 7,000 less people on a daily basis. Again, see our website for detailed numbers.
Traffic counts, too, have dipped. According to Caltrans District 3, on State Route 89, there was a 38% decrease in car counts between March 2019 and 2020. Between the Julys of the two years, it was a 6% decrease.
On State Route 267, March to March saw a 30% decrease, while July to July saw a 7% dip.
Contrary to decreased traffic on the roads, traffic on trails has gone up. The Dollar Creek bike path has seen its user number increase by 129%.
And then … the trash. Kelli Hare, who works in operations with Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal, told Moonshine the totals of trash tonnages from July 2019 compared to July 2020 have slightly decreased overall, “likely due to many commercial businesses either closed or on limited service.”
However, she continued, campgrounds in the area “are seeing more trash and requiring more service than ever before. Some of them to the point that they’ve doubled their service.” Public trash receptacles at beaches are also seeing heavy use.
In the residential sector, Hare said bear box collection has peaked and been a collection issue. “[They] are being packed full of loose, messy trash instead of being utilized to house one to two neat cans or being empty. A bear box is intended to be a shed for garbage cans to be placed in, not as a mini-dumpster with loose items just strewn in.”
More numbers on the amount of calls into the police and fire departments and those floating the river and lake can be found in the online exclusive story online at moonshineink.com.
The numbers presented indicate that overall there hasn’t been a dramatic increase in people in Tahoe/Truckee. Why does it feel otherwise? Several sources say the perceived increase might be a matter of a shift in who has been up here, but putting a finger on that information is proving elusive.
Supervisor Gustaffson said, “People are pointing fingers trying to blame visitors and short-term rentals and day visitors. I don’t think we know everything we need to know — and even then I don’t think we should blame others. People are doing a lot of finger pointing and assuming, making a lot of assumptions that I don’t think are grounded yet. We haven’t had time to really understand what we’re dealing with.”
Jeff Cowan, public information officer for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, pointed out there could be multiple reasons visitor pressure seems higher but traffic counts are lower.
“It’s the character and makeup of the trips that’s changed. We know that year-in and year-out, about 50% of trips [in] the Basin are residents, and 50% are day and overnight visitors. Trip counts may be down … but with fewer residents on the road, the difference is most likely an uptick in visitors — and possibly a significant one. Many residents aren’t commuting, taking kids to school/sports, and eating out. Also, many part-time residents are here for a longer period and may be travelling more like a full-time resident than usual.”
Liz Bowling with the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association said day visitors likely play a large role in the increased crowds. Because day visitors don’t stay the night in lodging and they might not necessarily be patronizing restaurants or businesses, putting a number to that swell is difficult to do.
She said, “There are a couple different agencies that are tracking cars and cell phone data, but that’s not always telling the full story. That’s just one consideration to keep in mind: that yes, we’ve seen a decrease in what occupancy looks like with our lodging, but it’s important to remember that this day visitor does account for a lot.”
In an Aug. 22 post on the Truckee Tahoe Litter Group Facebook page, Truckee resident Mone’ Haen, along with a number of other locals who added their names to the post, pleaded for the town council to take a more active role in mitigation efforts for COVID-19, short-term rentals, and fire danger.
The statement read, in part: “The community has continually provided public comment and input regarding concerns to all of the aforementioned issues. Our concerns as constituents have been ignored and the underlying threats of COVID, fire, and record numbers of tourists to the area have been swept under the rug in order to preserve the short-term interests of a small number of businesses that benefit from summer tourism.”
We at Moonshine are keeping our finger on the pulse of visitor data, and will continue to uncover and share data about the number of people in the Tahoe region this summer. At moonshineink.com you can find this article, titled Is Tahoe Actually More Crowded This Summer?, and more on what’s affecting the North Tahoe/Truckee region.
That’s all for today. Remember to stay cool and love your neighbors.