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Collaborative Research in the Lake Tahoe Basin

  • Published in Featured Projects

Since the early 1960s, the DRI has conducted research in the Lake Tahoe Basin to develop critical scientific knowledge and protect the treasured ecosystem for the enjoyment of generations to come. With the annual Tahoe Summit happening next week, we've rounded up a handful of current projects in the basin to highlight the wide range of DRI research serving Lake Tahoe.

DRI NSF Lake Tahoe 1964DRI and University of Nevada Reno researchers prepare for a dive at Skunk Harbor during the NSF Summer Science Training Program in July 1964. Credit: Gus Bundy/University of Nevada Archives.


A team of faculty and graduate students including Adam Watts, Ph.D., associate research professor of fire ecology, and Kellen Nelson, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, are developing smoke sampling and thermal imaging payloads to use aboard unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for active monitoring of live wildland fires. This new technology can help local and regional fire agencies better understand the impacts of wildland fire smoke on public health and air quality. 

Watts Florida Trip4.18Credit David Godwin 3Adam Watts pilots a UAS during the Prescribed Fire Science Consortium’s 2018 research burn, hosted by the Tall Timbers Research Station and the U.S. Forest Service. Credit: David Godwin/Southern Fire Exchange.

DRI's John Mejia, Ph.D., and his team including Ehsan Mosadeghm, Eric Wilcox, Ph.D., and Sandra Rayne, Ph.D., have developed a state-of-the-art modeling framework following EPA guidelines to study the impact of prescribed burn emissions on both lake clarity and air quality in the Lake Tahoe Basin in collaboration with the Tahoe Science Advisory Committee. Working closely with the Forest Service and UC Davis, the research team is currently adding a variety of prescribed fire emission scenarios to their background pollutant emissions model, which will isolate the effects of prescribed burns from other sources of pollution and support future forest management decisions.


DRI researchers led by Seshadri Rajagopal, Ph.D., assistant research professor of hydrometeorology, in collaboration with UNR assistant professor Adrian Harpold, are studying the effects of forest management on water yields in the Lake Tahoe Basin by utilizing cutting-edge hydrologic modeling and novel observation techniques. In this project, researchers aim to identify the forest canopy arrangements that maximize snow water availability and also increase scientific understanding of forest thinning effects on water yield. Ultimately, researchers will share this information with resource managers and other stakeholders in the Tahoe Basin and across the Sierra Nevada. 

Lake Tahoe nearshoreThe Lake Tahoe nearshore and surrounding beach.


Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D., associate research professor of biochemistry, and Casey Schmidt, Ph.D., assistant research professor of biochemistry, are evaluating the effectiveness of biochar-amended soils for filtering nutrients and fine sediments from stormwater. Biochar, natural material produced in forest fires or in controlled burns in kilns, has recently been added to soils in gardens around Incline Village, and Heyvaert and Schmidt’s research will assess how well the biochar enriched soils treat stormwater runoff that flows through it and, eventually, into Lake Tahoe. If this research finds that biochar is an effective filter, biochar amendment to soil would serve as a low-cost approach to reduce sediment and nutrient deposition in the lake.

Stormwater outfall at Lake TahoeA stormwater drainage into Lake Tahoe, part of the extensive stormwater monitoring system developed by DRI researchers.

Researchers led by Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D., associate research professor of biochemistry, have recently combined two existing databases of information on stormwater around Lake Tahoe—the biggest source of pollution in the lake’s nearshore—and added significant functions to the consolidated data management system in collaboration with the Tahoe Resource Conservation District. The new system features enhanced data analytics capabilities and easily exportable datasets for use by the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Research teams are currently working to improve the usability of the system and quality of the stormwater outfall data it collects.  


DRI researchers led by Brian Fitzgerald, M.Sc., staff research scientist in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, are conducting ongoing monitoring, water sample analysis, and reporting at Rosewood Creek, located in the northeastern region of the Lake Tahoe Basin. This work builds on long-term collaborations with the Nevada Tahoe Conservation District to restore Rosewood Creek after significant erosion events, improving water quality, wildlife habitat, and forest health in addition to mitigating flood risk throughout the area. 

Rosewood Creek Credit Brian FitzgeraldA section of Rosewood Creek after restoration work had been completed.


DRI's Chris Pearson, assistant research scientist, and Justin Huntington, Ph.D., research professor of hydrology, are utilizing Climate Engine--a free, cloud-based application developed by DRI, Google, and Universtity of Idaho--to monitor water quality at Lake Tahoe, complementing and enhancing in-situ monitoring while achieving broader coverage of the lake. The satellite-derived water quality metrics produced by Climate Engine can be used to better understand historical and current conditions, fill data gaps, and more effectively target future sampling campaigns. Pearson and Huntington's work will allow for unprecedented tracking of short and long-term changes in water and vegetation related to land management, watershed restoration, and climate.

trout creek climate engine graph

Trout Creek Climate EngineClimate Engine-generated plot of average summertime vegetation index before and after the Trout and Cold Creek restoration projects.


Led by Meghan Collins, M.Sc., assistant research scientist, and Frank McDonough, M.Sc., associate research scientist, the Stories in the Snow project enlisted help from a network of students and volunteers in the Reno-Tahoe region to collect over 550 photographs of snow crystals each time it snowed last winter. Project participants used a smartphone and data collection kit to capture up-close photographs of snowflakes then submitted the photos along with data on time, temperature, and location to a DRI research team through the Citizen Science Lake Tahoe mobile app. By combining the photographs with weather information from the time and location from which each snow crystal image was captured, researchers are now analyzing the data to learn about the temperature and water content of winter storm clouds. 

Collecting snowflake images using the smartphone kit.Meghan Collins demonstrates how to collect snowflake images using the smartphone kit. Credit: Cat Allison/Nevada Momentum.

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