Of all the things COVID-19 has been described as, Truckee resident Court Leve considers it a magnifying glass, laying bare the negative aspects of life. 

In Tahoe, Leve says, the novel coronavirus amplified the volume of tourism to our region, and in turn exacerbated many of its negative impacts, such as noise, traffic, and pollution. And residents are getting fed up. Leve runs the Truckee Tahoe Litter Group Facebook page, and told Moonshine that over a recent 28-day period, membership on the page had gone up by 30% to 1,400, while posts and comments skyrocketed 662% to 10,600. 

This summer, because of COVID, everybody wants to be outside,” Leve said. “I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this [with regard to] a steady basis of traffic and trash.”

“It’s like the Fourth of July every day,” echoed Jim Mapes, an Incline Village resident, about the recent crowds.

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],” she said. “… 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. Yet some do 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.

It seems contradictory,” said Cindy Gustafson, supervisor for Placer County. “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.”

KILL ‘EM WITH KINDNESS: Residents from Incline Village recently gathered to protest the amount of trash being left in the area. Photo by Nina Miller/Moonshine Ink

A numbers game

The visitor tax:

A useful source for putting a hard number to visitors in the area 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. Truckee received $276,358 for this quarter, down 59% from the same quarter in 2019 ($669,932).

Eastern Placer saw its own plunge in the most recent quarter’s TOT collection: dropping to $1.1 million from 2019’s $3.6 million. 

Comparing April through June 2019 to April through June 2020, the number of units being occupied each night decreased by 73%, from 105,649 to 28,517. Note that those numbers are not the total number of units available for rent, but a total of nights booked. (For example, if one house offers 50 nights available for rent during one quarter, and people stay at that location 100% of that availability, the unit contributes 50 to the total occupancy count.)

Those counts come from individuals registered through Placer County’s short-term rental system — aka the holders of TOT certificates, which is currently 4,351 in Eastern Placer.

We have worked hard the last few years to get our vacation rentals that are listed, particularly those that are listed online platforms, TOT certificates,” said Erin Casey from Placer County’s economic development office in Tahoe City. “We’ve been pretty diligent about that so I would say that these numbers don’t reflect 100% of every single vacation rental that’s out there, but it’s not far off.”

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; second and third, 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.

Post-flush: 

One solid 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. 

For June and July of 2019, an average of 4.45 million gallons per day (MGD) flowed into the plant. In 2020, the average dropped to 3.88 MGD. To put it more simply, 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.

The table below shows the five member entities feeding TTSA’s wastewater treatment facility, and the difference between flows from June and July of 2019 to June and July of 2020.

Contributing Flows to TTSA’s Water Reclamation Plant, in MGD
District June/July 2019 June/July 2020 Difference from 2019 to 2020 Difference in number of people*
North Tahoe Public Utility District 0.96 0.82 – 0.14 – 1,747
Tahoe City Public Utility District 0.96 0.87 – 0.087 – 1,090
Alpine Springs Community Water District 0.08 0.05 – 0.03 – 372
Squaw Valley Public Service District  0.21 0.18 – 0.039 – 491
Truckee Sanitation District 2.24 1.96 – 0.27 – 3,397
Total Difference in Number of People – 7,097

 

* Based on 200 gallons per day per household, and an average household of 2.5 people, which are the metrics TTSA uses.

On the road again:

Traffic counts, too, have dipped. According to Raquel Borrayo with Caltrans District 3, “traffic counts decreased during COVID stay-at-home orders” from March through July 2020 when compared to the same months the previous year, though the drop was much less dramatic during the latter months.

On State Route 89, at the junction of Pole Creek Road, 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 (from approximately 49,000 to 46,000).

On State Route 267, at Brockway Summit, 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% — from 333 last year to 762 this year during the last two weeks in July, according to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

One man’s trash:

Kelli Hare, who works in operations with Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal, told Moonshine that trash tonnages are tracked by month, and the totals from July 2019 compared to July 2020 have slightly decreased overall, “likely due to many commercial businesses either closed or on limited service.” The disposal company’s service area spans from Tahoe’s west shore, from Emerald Bay up and over to Crystal Bay, northwest to Truckee, and west almost all the way to Colfax.

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 light of this increased stress on trash-collection infrastructure, Placer County temporarily added three additional trash bins in Kings Beach, and increased pickup service frequency in Tahoe City. Additional signage for garbage bins is also being put in place, advising people to keep trash with them if a bin is full.

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,” Hare said. “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.”

THE REGULAR CROWD: Placer County Supervisor Cindy Gustafson told Moonshine Ink that attitudes by Tahoe locals have “almost sounded like racism, it’s kind of localism. ‘If you’re not a local, you aren’t deserving to be here.’ I think that’s really unfortunate and I think we have to try to dig deep and be tolerant and try to understand who are these people.” Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

Can you hear me now?

As part of continued efforts to put a number to people on the streets and sidewalks of Truckee,  the town is monitoring the amount of calls going into the police department and Truckee Fire Protection District — for which recent weekend numbers for each are shared below:

Number of Calls Received During Key 2020 Summer Weekends in Truckee

The Town of Truckee and Placer County requested visitors avoid coming to the region from July 23 through at least the weekend of Aug. 17

July 10-12 July 17-19 July 24-26 July 31- Aug. 2 Aug. 7-9 Aug. 14-16
Truckee Police Department 148 calls 166 calls 181 calls 207 calls 195 calls 216 calls
Truckee Fire Protection District 31 calls 32 calls 33 calls 31 calls 33 calls 48 calls

 

The overall trend this summer shows an increase as the season progressed. When compared to similar weekends in 2019, there’s an uptick, both to the police (875 in 2019; 1,113 in 2020) and to the fire district (189 in 2019; 208 in 2020).

Merrily, merrily: 

Hordes on the Truckee River between Tahoe City and Alpine Meadows have been seen all summer, with rafts practically being bumper cars on sections. According to data, the heavy majority comes from private parties. 

“The traffic on the river is over 70% public and the two raft companies are 30%,” said Aaron Rudnick, owner of Truckee River Raft Co. “Because we have cut back there is more unregulated rafting (public) than ever.”

The percentages come from a river monitor, required by Placer County, who keeps track of the orange paddles (Rudnick’s business), yellow paddles (Mountain Air Sports), and whatever colors the rest of the public uses. The hard numbers aren’t finalized yet for 2020, Rudnick said, though the percentages are accurate.

“Even in a normal year,” he continued, “both raft companies combined are about 50% [of the river crowds].”

Truckee River Raft Co. and Mountain Air Sports are voluntarily operating at about 50% capacity, so there’s no record-breaking opportunities business-wise, but spots do fill up fast. Truckee River Raft Co. is often sold out at least a week in advance. Guests have told Rudnick that even the nearby Shell and Chevron gas stations, which normally have storage containers filled with inflatable rafts, have run out.

On the other hand, Andrew Laughlin, owner of Tahoe City Kayak, has been joking with his staff that kayaks are the new toilet paper. Kayak and paddle board rentals have been good — great even; the tents at Commons Beach and Sand Harbor have seen a steady flow of interested parties heading out on the lake (which doesn’t deal with the same capacity constraints as the Truckee River).

“I’m not going to say from a rental perspective this is going to be our top summer,” Laughlin told Moonshine, “but it’s anything but a bust.”

On the retail side of things, however, “nothing’s come close,” he continued. “The hardest part this summer has been getting inventory because a lot of vendors were shut down for two, three, four months, so they’re starting the busy selling season on probably what is the highest demand summer for paddle boards in our lifetime.”

Orders that would normally take a few days have jumped up to 10 weeks for arrival.

Tahoe City Kayak isn’t actively trying to boost its business — and that was something Laughlin really wanted to point to. In addition to spacing people out, installing plexiglass, providing hand sanitizer, and using touchless payment and waiver systems, the store has pulled back on its advertising more than ever in its history.

“The people are here and what I’m providing is spacing them apart,” he explained. “I’m not trying to actively reel more of them to this place.”

Who Are You?

The numbers presented above indicate that overall there hasn’t been a dramatic increase in people in Tahoe/Truckee. 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. 

“People are pointing fingers trying to blame visitors and short-term rentals and day visitors,” Gustafson said. “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.”

Even still, in the midst of sorting through the numbers and fielding community concerns from all corners of the region, Placer and the Town of Truckee elected to put out a notice to visitors last month. On July 23, the two jurisdictions jointly penned a plea for people to avoid visiting the region on weekends through at least Aug. 17. After that point, the message read, visitor numbers will “subside to more manageable levels.”

The plea wasn’t necessarily based on data, Gustafson said, but the fact that her office was receiving so many complaints about the increase in visitors. Truckee Mayor David Polivy said that admittedly, there hasn’t been the decrease everyone was hoping for since the joint letter was distributed, but neither have they seen the normal end-of-summer rush. 

“We really thought the first two weeks of August we were going to see this last-ditch spike to go enjoy the mountains or the lake, and we didn’t see that,” he said. “We saw sort of a flatlining, which again, sort of speaks to the fact that people just chose to come up here for the summer and just stay a little longer.”

A recent survey of the Tahoe Donner Association’s members reflects that idea. According to Lindsay Hogan, head of communications and member relations for the homeowner’s association, 12% of the 3,177 respondents shared that while they weren’t using their homes as a permanent residence prior to COVID-19, they are now.

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,” Cowan wrote in an email. “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.”

Gustafson, who lives in Tahoe City, has noticed her own second homeowner friends have been in town more often this summer than ever before.

“There’s a lot of second homeowners using their homes, and maybe it’s the owners themselves, maybe it’s their kids, or their family members using their home, but they’ve taken it out of the rental pool for now,” she said. “Or [they’re] not renting it. That doesn’t mean the houses are empty, though.”

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.

“There are a couple different agencies that are tracking cars and cell phone data,” Bowling said, “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 response to the vast amount of information spread thinly across multiple organizations and agencies, Placer County’s Erin Casey did say the county is hoping to pull together a dashboard in the future that can provide the data needed on visitors of all types and lengths of stay. 

“I think that’s one way that we could better understand our visitor, our occupancy, the number of people in our area, the way in which the curve fluctuates up here, etc.,” Casey shared. “That’s one thing that we are really looking at doing: really updating that information as often as we can and sharing that as widely as we can so we can all have some understanding of that.”

A few years ago, the Tahoe Truckee Transportation District turned to cell phone data to track the volume, genesis, and movement of visitors to the Basin. In the data set purchased from February, July, and August of 2014, the TTD found that the average daily population around Lake Tahoe is four times higher than the permanent residential population. This 2014 information, however, is the most recent available. According to Cowan with the TRPA, new data will be available next year. 

NOT IN OUR HOUSE: A house in Meyers advertised its views on the number of visitors to the Tahoe region. Photo courtesy Josh Lease

The residents clap back

Anecdotes of increased tourists and trash went from social media complaints to the streets over a recent weekend, sparked by Josh Lease, a resident on Lake Tahoe’s south shore. Lease encouraged fellow residents to “demand respect” for the area by congregating at roundabouts around the lake with signs asking passersby to take care of their trash.

It was something suggested and the community took over,” Lease told Moonshine of the demonstrations, or “outcries,” as he referred to them. “Not just the local community, but the whole lake itself was like, wow, let’s get on this.”

About 100 to 120 people showed up to the Friday, Aug. 14, Meyers demonstration, and about 40 or so did on Sunday, Lease said. The interactions between those with signs and those driving by in cars was mostly respectful, with some drivers even passing out Gatorade, water bottles, and snacks. However, some phrases Lease heard people shout from passing vehicles included, “We don’t litter; we’re White” and “It’s okay, our tax dollars pick up our trash.”

Demonstrations were also held in Incline Village, Tahoe City, and Truckee.

“The North Shore rallies weren’t organized,” explained Laura Read in an email, who attended the gatherings in Tahoe City. “They were crowdsourced — inspired by Josh Lease’s post to hold roundabout rallies in five locations. I posted about the events and asked people for sign ideas. But the effort had a life of its own energized by unrest in the communities.”

According to Read, about 15 to 20 people attended the Friday afternoon event in Tahoe City; and 10 on Sunday morning.

“The roundabout rallies had short notice, so it’s understandable there weren’t more people there,” she wrote. “However, each person standing with a sign represented hundreds of people — both visitors and residents — who have been speaking out with friends, at public meetings, via letters to leaders, and on social media about the need for leaders to take immediate action against litter and trash along roadways and in public places.”

Read is the creator of a new Facebook page called Tahoe in Balance, which looks at “problems vexing residents and homeowners at Lake Tahoe right now,” she wrote: fire danger, traffic congestion, excessive litter, and overcrowding.

“The Tahoe story is about more than just beauty, vacation, and entertainment,” Read stated in her email. “It is also about how residents, homeowners, and employees have worked hard to preserve the lake and make their communities function well; how they’ve imbued the various towns, cities, and neighborhoods with distinct characters that visitors also value; and how they’ll keep striving to sustain the Lake Tahoe sense of place.”

In an Aug. 22 post on the Truckee Tahoe Litter Group 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 community has continually provided public comment and input regarding concerns to all of the aforementioned issues,” the statement read. “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.”

To date, 89 people have added their name to the open letter.

Winter is coming

Tahoe’s summer appeal — the cool-water lakes, hiking trails, and stunning scenery — isn’t as bound by weather (minus current wildfires and resulting smoke) and whether or not resorts are open. Come winter, however, ski resorts drive much of the market. While a question mark remains on the full-fledged functioning of the resorts, there’s also concern for how restaurants and other outside-only businesses will handle the snow.

“In regards to lost revenue for [restaurants], once it gets cold, they’re right back [to curbside pickup or delivery only],” Leve of the Tahoe Truckee Litter Group said. “They’re screwed right now. They’ve got another four to eight weeks at best of outside dining … Pessimistically, it’s going to get cold so there’s going to be no dining again. They’re going to be back to take-out only so nothing’s changed.”

The Town of Truckee, however, is thinking ahead.

Mayor Polivy says there’s a plan in place to aid downtown Truckee: “We’re working on some grant applications right now. There is a core group of the [Truckee Donner Merchant Association], Sierra Business Council, selected town staff, [and] we’re working on a fairly robust grant application to the county utilizing CARES Act emergency funding to potentially create some type of downtown winter experience.”

With that plan is the consideration of businesses beyond the core downtown area, Polivy added.