Just over 10 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe lies Donner Lake, another mountain-fed body of water on whose shores lie residences, docks, and oft-traveled roads.
Tahoe is roughly 600% deeper, 715% longer, and 1,900% wider than Donner. The former’s fame is quite a bit more pronounced, too, including campaigns to protect the lake’s world-famous clear waters, staggering visitation numbers (17 million visitor days in 2022 alone), and the designation as an Outstanding National Resource Water per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Even still, Donner Lake is arguably just as picturesque — more effective than any billboard for those traveling on Interstate 80.
However, the attentiveness given to its much larger sister has not been lavished upon Donner Lake in the same way.
Tim Tweedie has had a cabin on the south shore of Donner Lake since the mid-’80s. He’s witnessed a steady deterioration of Donner as evidenced by algae on his boat and the underwater rocks off his beach; and leftover firework casings and wires floating in the water post-July Fourth.
“Everybody says this is the jewel of the area, to have that lake there,” he told Moonshine Ink. “But no one is willing to polish it.”
Emilie Kashtan is another Donner Lake resident, and her efforts to improve the basin have been ongoing for decades, even catching the attention of the L.A. Times, which in a 2001 article documented her role in improving water quality for herself and her neighbors. Around that same time, Kashtan said she noticed erosion on the steep hillside above her Donner Pass Road residence and sediment ending up in Donner Lake. She’s spent the years since calling on different agencies to recognize the ongoing negative impacts on the health of the lake.
Clean Up the Lake, a nonprofit organization dedicated to water-body cleanups, first began directing its attention to Donner in 2020, when it removed 5,000 pounds of litter from the lake. Two years later, the team has extracted another 8,000 pounds.
“The litter problem is quite a large one at the lake,” wrote Colin West, CUTL founder and CEO, in an email. “Under the surface has seen decades of accumulation.
We are tackling it to the best of our ability; but ultimately it was sad to see that we did two full circumnavigations of the lake to date and the second time around we removed more than the first. And that was in the same 0-to-25-foot depth zone. So, of course, we’re a little concerned with what we might find at 35 to 55 feet when we do that project in 2024.”
Everybody says this is the jewel of the area, to have that lake there. But no one is willing to polish it.”
~ Tim Tweedie
Lisa Wallace, executive director of the Truckee River Watershed Council (TRWC), says she’s very aware of the longtime concern over the stewardship of Donner Lake. “But those kinds of questions and concerns came to a crisis point in the summer of 2020, when, as we know, our entire area was inundated with people recreating outside. And Donner Lake was a huge attractor for people. State parks, for example, estimate that their visitation increased 200% over the previous year.”
While organization heads like Wallace are optimistic about Donner’s future and the increasing notice being given, others, like Kashtan, point to serious ongoing flaws having been actively ignored for decades now by those who she believes should be responsible.
A pearl in peril
The Nevada County Grand Jury recently took notice of Donner’s deteriorating state: A June 2023 investigation called attention to the issues threatening the health of the lake. The report, Donner Lake: A Pearl in Peril, recommended that the Town of Truckee, in whose jurisdiction it lies, take a lead role in addressing the risks.
Factors jeopardizing Donner Lake listed by the grand jury include destabilized hillsides contributing to sediment runoff; highly erodible types of rocks; a high potential for a 6 to 7-magnitude earthquake; high risk for landslides; water quality degradation; aquatic invasive species; and shoreline erosion.
“Challenges with the water quality of Donner Lake have been known since 1978 or earlier,” stated the report. “Beginning in 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency classified the lake as an impaired water due to priority organics including PCBs, chlordane, and arsenic.”
While the TRWC has been performing work in the Donner basin for more than a decade, Wallace talked about the inconsistency in data regarding “whether the lake was healthy or not, whether there were recreation impacts, whether there were transportation impacts, or whether there were storm water impacts.” These questions led to the 2016 Donner Basin Assessment conducted by the watershed council.
“It helped us clarify where parts of the system were doing well and where parts of that basin needed restoration or protection work,” Wallace said. “Broadly, I would say we agree that there are areas within the Donner Lake basin that need attention, that need restoration, that need protection. And there are a lot of people who have been implementing that work and are continuing to be committed to implementing that.”
More recently, and in response to 2020’s increase in visitation, the Donner Lake Interagency Partnership for Stewardship (DIPS) was founded. The purpose of DIPS is “a coordinated stewardship plan to protect and enhance the long-term ecological and economic health of Donner Lake.” Signatories include California Department of Parks and Recreation, Tahoe Donner Association, Town of Truckee, Truckee Donner Land Trust, Truckee Donner Public Utility District, Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District, Truckee Meadows Water Authority, TRWC, and Truckee Sanitary District.
DIPS began regularly testing the water quality of the lake in 2021 and continues to report findings. Previously, testing was inconsistent because of the number of agencies with authority over Donner Lake and no single one having sole responsibility.
Wallace said that more than two years’ worth of data is needed before responses to stewardship efforts are better understood. Five years of consecutive data will be closer to the mark. “We can’t really understand yet the cause and effects of human actions and drought and big water years on the conditions that are in place right now at Donner Lake,” she added. “I know it sounds tedious, but it’s why we need to do the monitoring and we need to do the data collection part for more than two years in a row.”
The town, watershed council, Nevada County Board of Supervisors, and DIPS all submitted formal responses to the grand jury report. The collective answers were that the entities will carry on with current efforts.
“Although staff and funding resources are limited, we plan to continue to participate in the [DIPS] group and look for opportunities to use available town resources to protect and enhance the long-term ecological and community health of Donner Lake,” wrote Becky Bucar, the town’s assistant public works director, in an email.
She added that “staff will also continue our ‘day-to-day’ operations that work toward protecting and preserving Donner Lake, such as regulation of construction activities on private property, routine street sweeping and drainage cleaning, and miscellaneous drainage improvements.”
DIPS was referenced multiple times in agencies’ responses to the grand jury report as a consortium currently underway to address many of the points brought up.
Regarding the grand jury report, both Wallace and Bucar said the publication was somewhat sudden. While the investigation took 11 months to complete, Bucar said the town was notified two weeks before the official report was published.
“The fact that the Nevada County Grand Jury was going to do a report about Donner Lake, I would say yes, that completely surprised us,” Wallace echoed. “But on the other hand, in the broader picture, it’s not surprising that a lot of people … are worried [or have] concerns … about the health of Donner Lake and the surrounding land.”
DIPS is hosting an open house about the stewardship plan and state of Donner Lake on Tuesday, Nov. 14, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Donner Memorial State Park visitors center, 12593 Donner Pass Rd.
By way of Reed West
The jury report paid special attention to Reed Avenue West, a short half-mile road running parallel to the north shore of Donner Lake and Donner Pass Road and one that has been a point of contention for decades.
While Donner Pass Road is maintained by the Town of Truckee, Reed Avenue West is not. It’s considered a non-town-maintained public right-of-way. This status differs from a private road in that the town has no public maintenance responsibility for the road, but Reed Avenue West does hold “an underlying land interest that allows public access across and along the right-of-way, as well as the ability for utilities to be located within the right-of-way” (as stated in town documentation).
Because of the decades of ongoing debate over the road’s upkeep, Reed Avenue West has become an unintentional thoroughfare for stormwater and sediment down the hillside from Interstate 80 and into Donner Lake. This is the byproduct of the street’s drainage ditches allegedly not being restored after an early 2000s installation of water and gas lines (the town refutes this, but residents claim eyewitness experiences); unpermitted grading upslope of Reed; and drainage design consolidation on I-80, which sits above Reed.
The town responded to the grand jury report that the suggested collaboration between the staff and hillside residents had previously been implemented: “In the year 2000, the town commissioned an engineering study that identified a proposed plan for improvement of West Reed Avenue.” While these recommendations and designs remain applicable, town policy doesn’t allow for “accepting” the maintenance responsibility for Reed, and the most likely source of funding to improve the roadway and associated drainage, the town stated, must be the pockets of property owners on the road.
Even with the grand jury’s spotlight, Bucar said staff doesn’t anticipate Reed Avenue West being eligible to fall under town management “because the report does not change any of the underlying reasons that the road does not meet the town’s adopted road acceptance standards.” Such standards require that the town only accept roadways for public maintenance if they don’t cause an undue financial burden to taxpayers — in part because of being a substandard roadway. Reed West Avenue is noted as being clearly deficient by the town and in need of significant capital investment to bring it up to par.
Kashtan interprets the town’s lack of involvement as a behind-the-scenes effort by staff to avoid obtaining the road and all of its problems at any cost. She pointed to her history of bringing Reed Avenue West’s status to the Town of Truckee’s attention, claiming it was, in fact, a public road that the town needed to maintain while town staff argued it was private. Kashtan has submitted three different complaints to the Nevada County Grand Jury regarding the protection of Donner Lake via the role Reed Avenue West plays. She says her first complaint, submitted in 2019, was shrugged off because the town recognized Reed West as a private road. By the end of that year, however, the town clarified the status of West Reed as a non-town-maintained public right-of-way.
Kashtan’s second complaint, submitted in August 2020, was dismissed because of Covid-19. The third one she submitted on Aug. 8, 2022. Just under three months later, she appeared before the county jury for a three-hour-long testimony. She knows of several other Donner Lake-area property owners, three of which were interviewed by the grand jury, who also submitted complaints.
“I want to figure out what the heck is going on, and [whether] there’s teeth or not [to this investigation],” she said. “There is this grand jury report that took 11 months to put together and raised some really critical points, but people are kind of brushing it under the rug.”
The grand jury report requested the aforementioned formal responses, but nothing more.
Since June, Kashtan has sent further information surrounding Reed Avenue West’s current state to the Honorable Scott Thomsen, supervising judge of the grand jury, who passed it on to the newest Nevada County Grand Jury. Kashtan has volunteered to serve as Nevada County’s and the grand jury’s DIPS representative but hasn’t received a response as of publication.
She says DIPS is a smoke screen, an attempt by the involved groups to look good for the grand jury. The Donner Lake Property Owners Association, which comprises more than 600 properties in the lake’s vicinity, is notably absent, Kashtan added. Wallace told Moonshine the association is considering joining.
Should the newest jury members decide to take on an additional Donner Lake investigation, they would only be able to include new information verified through their own examinations as opposed to that of previous jurors.
Big sister, little sister
As far as who’s on first with protecting Donner Lake, Bucar stated firmly it’s not the town.
“The town has a role in long-term stewardship of Donner Lake, but the complicated land ownership and regulatory framework surrounding Donner Lake does not lend itself well to the town spearheading the entirety of the stewardship effort,” she said. “There are over 1,000 property owners within the watershed that all have various roles and responsibilities related to Donner Lake, including: the Union Pacific Railroad, Caltrans, California State Parks, the California State Lands Commission, [and others, as well as] the political jurisdictions of Placer County, Nevada County, and the Town of Truckee.”
Lake Tahoe experiences a similarly complex jurisdictional makeup, and many recognize the opportunity for mimicking that stewardship approach.
There is this grand jury report that took 11 months to put together and raised some really critical points, but people are kind of brushing it under the rug.”
~ Emilie Kashtan
“I think rather than being disillusioned by being in a glory shadow of Lake Tahoe,” Wallace said, “what we can do instead is we can understand what is the science and what is the policy work that’s been done at Lake Tahoe to keep Lake Tahoe protected and continue to protect it and apply that to Donner Lake.”
Tom Mooers, executive director for the conservation advocacy group Sierra Watch, believes in a similar approach. He commented on the opportunity for the Tahoe name extending much further than its Basin’s limits.
“With Tahoe and the clarity of the lake in particular, one way we can understand a healthy environment is the foundation of a strong economy,” he said. “In other words, a murky lake would be bad for business. I’d stick up for using the clarity of Tahoe as an important barometer of how we’re doing as a region. But it’s not the only lake. It’s not the only body of water … It’s great for people to pay attention to Donner Lake in this way.”