Trouble on the Truckee

Privatization, overcrowding make local rafting a health and environmental risk

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BY SARAH LOWIS | Moonshine Ink

Follow the Truckee River between Tahoe City and River Ranch on a warm day or weekend, and you’ll see rafts packed in like bumper cars, stopping in spots to party “spring break” style. Large groups, mixed households, families, friends, children — with no sanitation, no social distancing, no masks, just a free for all. At one popular party stop there are only two porta potties to service the mass gatherings that occur at the spot. Additionally, the 64-acre parking area has three porta potties for hundreds of visitors, none of which have hand sanitation available. Sanitation is so important considering the amount of public use these sites are currently accommodating, especially during this pandemic.

Many people in Tahoe City are frustrated and discouraged seeing the Truckee River overused this summer. Local business owners witness this river party scene while their businesses are closed or have restrictions. Beer and drinks are spilled, people relieve themselves, river sediment is stirred from human activity, and all this adds to water quality degradation. As a nurse, I see an infection opportunity for anyone with a cut or scrape among the gatherings, and likely COVID-19 exposure or spread. Similarly, the lack of sanitation and limited toilets potentiates other disease spread. I have found human waste behind shoreline trees, diapers, and trash. At night there are discarded “floaties” and garbage left on the bike path for someone else to clean up. It’s just so sad to see.

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It’s reasonable that people come to the river on a hot summer day, understanding recreation is at one’s own risk during these times. Restrictions in regions outside Tahoe to mitigate COVID-19 spread have added to the attraction of rafting. Increased visitation this summer has created serious overuse to recreational areas and public lands. Management is complex and involves multiple agencies.

The commercial rafting companies have historically worked well together and are generally well-liked in the community. To operate, the companies must meet criteria for a conditional use permit. Permit prerequisites include what is referred to as the “fair share” of clean up for environmental health. A river monitor records rafting traffic, both commercial and private, to comply with  a sediment metric known as Total Maximum Daily Load thresholds. The companies also submit reviews of traffic impacts.

All in all, stewardship of the Truckee River is shared by both companies to the benefit of all recreational users. That said, is it reasonable or sustainable to expect they can monitor or manage their “fair share” considering the continued growth of private rafting? Currently the commercial businesses are operating at 50% capacity per restrictions which equates 100 rafts a day, even with eight people per raft, whereas private rafting has ballooned.

So how do we resolve this to protect from the impacts overuse is having on the river, and ensure that the Truckee doesn’t become a super spreader of the coronavirus?

The local development vision referred to as Mixed Use Tahoe City includes growth to ensure “tourists have easy access to recreational activities.” Visitor growth will impact rafting on the Truckee among other outdoor opportunities.

The Transient Occupancy Taxes from short-term rentals and tourist accommodation units go to “tourism and promotion funds.” I believe this capital could become, at least in part, directed toward protecting the Truckee River from impact created from added recreational use by tourism, thus partnering with commercial rafting to meet the obligations outlined by all agencies involved.

One idea would be for private rafters to be required to have advanced reservations, much like campgrounds, thus limit the sediment TMDL. This would allow for more manageable and sustainable recreational opportunities for all. Certainly, there is a need for assistance with waste management, trash, and parking controls along the river. For perspective on the increased privatization, in the reports from 2019 private rafters accounted for 64.6% of total rafters, and that percentage will certainly be much higher this year.

For immediate relief for the river, Placer County has decided to take action by extension of the alcohol ban on the river through Oct. 15, with the intent being to “preserve public peace, health, and safety.” Hopefully this will help for the tail end of the season, however, we can’t stop there. It’s time to plan long term for future growth of the local rafting industry. The Truckee River needs our help before we love it to death.

~ Sarah Lowis has lived in mountain communities since childhood. She moved to Tahoe City from Chamonix in 1981 and has two grown sons born and raised here. An avid outdoor enthusiast, she is passionate about protecting Tahoe. As an orthopedic trauma nurse at Renown Hospital, she hopes not to see you there.

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