Back to nature

The U.S. Forest Service has made the right decision in leaving the former site of Incline Lake empty and moving ahead to restore it to its natural state.

Because the Nevada Department of Wildlife does a good job for our environment and also supported re-establishing Incline Lake, there were those who felt that bringing back the human-made lake was an environmentally sound decision. We don’t agree.

The lake was created by a 1942 dam. The 754 acre property that included the lake was a remnant of the years when Lake Tahoe was a playground for tax residents and wealthy celebrities. The 20-acre lake was accompanied by several buildings, including a clubhouse and a lodge plus an indoor swimming pool and deep space telescope. The telescope, housed in the last standing structure, was removed to the University of Nevada in Reno in July 2008. It was in that same year that the Forest Service acquired the property for $43,500,000. The lake is now dry.

The dam is adjudged to be seismically unstable and a federal study said it would “liquify” in an earthquake. But that was only one problem. That same study said the watershed has been harmed by the lake:

“Water was diverted out of Third Creek to supply the man-made lake, but this diversion was shut down prior to the Forest Service acquiring ownership. The addition of Third Creek water and ditching led to stream erosion. The creek has cut down through surface soils and continues to do so currently. This erosion front is located just beyond the rim of the old lake bed, where water plunges 6 feet over the head cut from the meadow surface to a raw stream bottom. Without intervention, erosion will continue to advance up valley and has already captured one of the headwater spring feeder streams, the bottom of which is eroding down currently.”

Too often human-made lakes have been kept in place because they are there. A notable example is in California, where enormous effort has been put into “saving” the accidentally-created Salton Sea. That body of water has come and gone for eons, but its existence in the memory of everyone living was caused by humans—a sloppily constructed irrigation project resulted in headgates giving way in 1905 and the Colorado River pouring for months out of its channel. As Marc Reisner wrote in his Cadillac Desert, “the Salton Sink had once again become the Salton Sea.” Nature, of course, slowly returned it to its relatively dry state and humans are now foolishly trying to interfere with that natural process by restoring the results of that accidental disaster.

The Incline dam was a product of an era when the population of this region was small and tampering with nature could be done with little widespread impact. Today we have to plan better and use everything we have more carefully, water most of all. We understand the desire of anglers to fish Incline Lake and of the Department of Wildlife to have a fishery for cutthroat trout, but there are also competing interests, such as hikers and birders and wetlands.

We prefer to let nature re-take its course and for the Forest Service to return the site as close to its natural scenic state as possible.