Colin West is standing on the shores of Lake Tahoe and surveying mounds and mounds of trash, mulling over the weirdest items he and his team have pulled from the water as they doggedly pursue a 72-mile scuba cleanup.
“Literally, as we speak now, I’m looking at an old can from probably the early 1980s; it’s got a pull tab ... there’s an A&W root beer can and beer cans and there’s a first-edition GoPro,” West, the founder of non-profit Clean Up The Lake, tells The Independent.
He and his team found a local ID that expired in 1979 and “the dude totally had this crazy 70s ‘stache that was hilarious,” he said. Other discoveries include an AM/FM radio, stereos, a rubber snake, cell phones, beer cans, crawdad traps, sunglasses, car rims, you name it.
“We have gathered over 8,122 pounds of trash and over 9,286 pieces of trash to date,” says West, who made the first dive with the Tahoe non-profit in 2019. “We are just over 22 miles into this 72-mile cleanup.”
The massive undertaking was scheduled to take place last year but was postponed by Covid. But that didn’t deter West and his team – or the local community, which has rallied around now that the organisation is working towards the halfway mark in this year’s cleanup.
“We started May 14 and we go down three days a week – Monday, Tuesday and Thursday – and we’re doing three tanks a day, so we’re trying to average about a mile a day,” the 34-year-old tells The Independent. “That’s got us estimated to hopefully finish in mid-November. We’re just swimming our hearts out and working our tails off and hopefully we’ll be home by Christmas.”
In addition to the non-profit team, he says, “we’ve had over 81 separate volunteers that have come out on the lake. That can be free divers, boat captains, jet ski captains, kayakers, scuba divers. I’m checking out an awesome team of volunteers now who are interns from Lake Tahoe Community College and Sierra Nevada University, and some people come from the community – just come in and help categorise this litter ... we try and find ways to reuse it, so if there’s things that are still in good condition, someone might be like, ‘Hey, can I have that paddle board?’
“Someone wanted the crawdad traps to help protect their plants and garden.
“After we categorise it, count it weigh it – which we do to better understand where this trash is coming from to educate the public ... we’re trying to show kind of what is polluting the lake and where it’s coming from so that we can prevent it in the future,” he tells The Independent.
“The aluminum and plastic we’re saving for art installations that we’re going to do with one of our partners, Tahoe Fund,” he says.
That fund works on raising money for different environment projects in the community, and huge other donations have come from the owner of Tahoe Blue Vodka – who donated $100,000 for matching donations – in addition to $25,000 from Vail Resorts and 135 different donors. Clean Up The Lake also secured grants from various community and other organisations.
While the amount of trash gathered to date is unfortunate – and is only expected to spiral as the teams spend the next few months dredging up more – West says that “a lot of this, I’m sure, is accidental” rather than deliberate.
“With more humans comes more trash,” he tells The Independent.
“I was sad to see how long this problem has been going in, in that the trash, the impact that we’ve had as a species in the last 50 years, is so substantial,” he says. “A lot of this trash isn’t 75 or 100 years old; it’s all really within the last 50 years or so that we have just absolutely destroyed the bottom of this lake.”
He adds: “All this trash is just dropped and forgotten about. When you look down from your boat on Tahoe, you don’t see it – but it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
“When you get down there and you’re combing every inch of the subsurface shoreline with a scuba tank on your back, you see it and you clean it and then you pull it up ... It’s sad, that, just because it’s out of sight, it’s been out of our mind – people aren’t doing anything about it.”