Sommelier’s nonprofit and Tahoe Blue Vodka work to clean Lake Tahoe’s depths.
Beer cans, plastic bottles, sunglasses, towels, smartphones, ’80s-era boomboxes, car tires, and boat fragments — these are just some of the objects found in the 9,000 pounds of trash pulled from beneath the surfaces of Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake this past year thanks to the nonprofit Clean Up The Lake.
Clean Up The Lake was founded by Colin West, a South Shore resident, sommelier, and director of the wine-focused production company WINERAM, which he started after earning his master’s degree in wine business in Australia. Before moving to Tahoe, he traveled the world creating approachable, award-winning documentaries and TV series about wine and vintners.
“Traveling in Central America and Belize, I saw the trash program. That’s when my gears shifted,” West recalls. “I did a beach cleanup at Lake Tahoe in 2018, and I came out with 40 pounds of trash. Then I heard about how someone collected 600 pounds of trash from a scuba cleanup that occurred by Bonsai Rock. I was blown away. From that point on, I wanted to learn more.”
Though West still hopes to arrange volunteer trips to Central America to clean up natural areas affected by trash, he’s turned his attention homeward with Clean Up The Lake. The organization currently is planning and fundraising for a 72-mile underwater scuba cleanup of Tahoe’s shoreline starting this spring.
In December, Tahoe Blue Vodka donated a whopping $100,000 to fund the effort, and in January, the not-for-profit Tahoe Fund met its goal to raise and match the donation, with contributions from more than 135 businesses and individuals.
Originally planned for 2020, the underwater cleaning was delayed due to the pandemic, but it gave the growing nonprofit time to test the waters with how it orchestrates its scuba dives and selects and trains qualified volunteers from the nearly 500 applicants who’ve reached out so far.
Diving at altitude coupled with Tahoe’s chilly temperature and at-times-choppy waters mean volunteers must be experienced and physically fit. For each dive team, there are two scuba divers, two free divers with snorkels, a jet ski rider, one or two kayakers, and a boat removing trash from depths of up to 25 feet.
“Oh, the things we’ve pulled out of the lake,” says West, who has turned from a vacation-only diver to a certified rescue diver and soon-to-be dive master.
An eight-mile circumnavigation of Donner Lake resulted in more than 5,000 pounds of garbage. And thanks to a pair of state grants from Nevada, six miles of The Silver State shoreline were cleaned this past year.
“Near Sand Harbor alone, in one day, we collected 990 aluminum cans,” West notes.
Clean Up The Lake volunteers plan to do the 72-mile cleanup in May and expect it will take three dives a week for six months to finish.
West is producing a documentary titled Make A Difference, which will highlight the work that the team is doing underwater in Lake Tahoe, as well as other groups working to enact change around the world.
“I think some people believe that one person’s effort won’t result in any kind of positive change, and that’s just not true,” West says. “If one person can get out there and initiate change, they can create a movement.”
Claire McArthur is heartened by how people are so willing to come together and fight to preserve Lake Tahoe. It’s her pleasure to write about these undertakings by nonprofits such as Clean Up The Lake.