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Tahoe Environmental Research Center tours

Iman Krueger watches Luc Ehlinger search for phytoplankton in a jar at the Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

Iman Krueger watches Luc Ehlinger search for phytoplankton in a jar at the Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

The Tahoe Environmental Research Center is on the campus of Sierra Nevada College, 291 Country Club Drive, Incline Village. It holds tours on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with Education Center Tours at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and Green Building Tours at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Free. For more information, call (775) 881-7560, or visit terc.ucdavis.edu.

Blue. Rarely has a color been the focus of such intense research and gained so much attention from ex-presidents, celebrities, universities and government coffers.

On the top floor of the year-old Tahoe Environmental Research Center, researchers and students from University of California, Davis and Sierra Nevada College study Lake Tahoe in the effort to do what the bumper sticker implores: Keep Tahoe blue. Below, on the main floor, a group of six children and three adults are getting a lesson in just what these researchers are doing and discovering by participating in the Education Center tour.

“The lake is kind of reflective of what we’re doing to our entire environment,” volunteer docent David Zeigler tells the group.

He stands aboard a model of the research vessel John LeConte and begins a video featuring UC Davis researchers. The group learns that Tahoe is the 11th deepest lake in the world and views NASA images of it from space. They learn why the lake is blue, why clarity has declined and the research methods used to measure that clarity. A Secchi disk, which helps measure depth, is passed around for participants to examine, as is a water sampler, which is used at various depths to analyze nutrients and algae. The group hears how the Secchi depth has changed since 1968. Forty years ago, the disk could be glimpsed 100 feet down, but now it’s seen at 70 feet.

Next up is the laboratory, which is a mockup of a limnologist’s lab. The children look for Daphnia, tiny planktonic crustaceans, within the murky water of a jar labeled “live cultures.” They draw out water samples and look at the Daphnia squiggling beneath a microscope’s lens, the image projected onto the wall. Formerly restless kids are thoroughly engaged here. They learn about the invasive Mysis shrimp, a species introduced to eat other invasives but becoming one itself.

The final stop is a curtained room with a large screen. Equipped with 3-D glasses, a virtual reality tour shows how Lake Tahoe was formed. The group takes a visual journey across a Lake Tahoe without water, seeing shelves of the lake bottom, evidence of tectonic shifts and long-gone glaciers. Boulders strewn across the lakebed tell the tale of a 7.0 earthquake 50,000 years ago that created McKinney Bay. They learn how 63 streams flow into Lake Tahoe, while there’s only one exit—the Truckee River. They also hear how the lake’s natural filtration process, wetlands, were destroyed in the 1960s when condos and homes were built in earnest around the lake, and that new wetlands are now being built and restored.

Then the tour is over, and the group files outside, where they see the real Lake Tahoe with more informed eyes.

For children and interested adults, the tour is a good introduction to the basic environmental issues of Lake Tahoe. It’s geared toward students in grades K-12 and their families, though middle-school students may be the best age group for the material.

Visitors interested in green building techniques can also take a “Green Building” tour of the facility, which earned the Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification—one of only seven buildings in the United States to have done so. Adults may enjoy that tour more than children.