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Lake Tahoe's Terminal Status A Result Of Extended Drought

TAHOE (CBS13) — Lake Tahoe is terminal. That's a technical way to explain water isn't flowing out of the lake. It won't always be like this, but the consequences of an extended drought go beyond the waterline.

Water levels at the lake are changing. Hour by hour, day by day, they're being tracked. A UC Davis researcher said the story doesn't really start in the water, it starts onshore by what you wouldn't have seen years ago.

"You're going to have a very unattractive, decomposing set of things on the beaches," said Geoff Schladow of the university's Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC).

Things like algae, stringy seaweed and sand being where there should be water.

All signs that the water in Lake Tahoe is below the natural rim.

"With a dry winter this year, we could be three feet below our current level by this time next year," Schladow said.

TERC researchers study the science that informs conservation.

Water isn't flowing out of Lake Tahoe and into the Truckee River right now.  One storm doesn't compensate for a drought and the hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that are lost through evaporation.

"We've always had these periods where the lake has gone beyond the natural rim," Schladow said. "What's becoming more different is they're happening more frequently."

Take Emerald Bay, for example: If levels continue to drop like they are now, boats won't be able to get through. These now connected bodies of water would be on their own.

The signs of lower water levels aren't lost on the people at the lake there to take it in. 

"I thought taking my friend out here and showing him what's going on at the lake right now is pretty important because it is part of our life," visitor Brittany Lewis said.

Even on first trips to the lake, the changes are subtle, but there.

"We see water levels down, little riverbeds that are dry that would normally be quite flowing," one family said.

How do we reverse Lake Tahoe's terminal status?

"I don't think it's something we can fix, it's something we have to live with," Schladow said.

Periods where the lake's levels have gone beyond the natural rim have happened before. What makes it different now is that it's happening more frequently.

The same drought concerns and calls to conserve water apply to every lake and reservoir in the west.

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