Lake Tahoe

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The Lake Tahoe Basin was formed by geologic block (normal) faulting. A geologic block fault is a fracture in the Earth's crust causing blocks of land to move up or down. Uplifted blocks created the Carson Range on the east and the Sierra Nevada on the west. Down-dropped blocks created the Lake Tahoe Basin in between. Some of the highest peaks of the Lake Tahoe Basin that formed during this process were Freel Peak at 10,891 ft (3,320 m), Monument Peak at 10,067 ft (3,068 m) (the present Heavenly Valley Ski Area), Pyramid Peak at 9,983 ft (3,043 m) (in the Desolation Wilderness), and Mt. Tallac at 9,735 ft (2,967 m). Evolutionary theory believes this formation occurred between 2 and 3 million years ago. The Creationist model contends this happened during the flood.

Snow, rain, and streams filled the southern and lowest part of the basin, forming the ancestral Lake Tahoe. Modern Lake Tahoe was shaped and landscaped by the scouring glaciers during the Ice Age. Many streams flow into Lake Tahoe, but the lake is drained only by the Truckee River, which flows northeast through Reno and into Pyramid Lake in Nevada.

Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the United States and the tenth deepest in the world, with a maximum depth measured at 1,645 ft (501 m), average depth of 1,000 ft (305 m). Crater Lake in Oregon is the deepest lake (1,949 ft or 594 m) in the United States. Please Note that the depth of Lake Tahoe changes every day as the lake level changes. The deepest measurement from the 1998 bathymetric survey was 1,637 ft (499 m) deep. The depth of Lake Tahoe depends on the height it is measured from; some measurements use sea level as a base reference, others use different points of reference. The appropriate reference, or datum, for Lake Tahoe's depth is still being debated. Therefore, the measured depth of a lake is only preliminary data and may change.

Lake Tahoe is about 22 mi (35 km) long and l2 mi (19 km) wide and has 72 mi (116 km) of shoreline and a surface area of 191 mi2 (495 km2). The floor of the Lake Tahoe Basin is at an elevation of about 4,580 ft (1,396 m), which is lower than the surface of the Carson Valley to the east! With an average surface elevation of 6,225 ft (1,897 m) above sea level, Lake Tahoe is the highest lake of its size in the United States.

The water temperature near the surface generally cools to 40 to 50 °F (4.5 to 10 °C) during February and March and warms to 65 to 70 °F (18 to 21 °C) during August and September. Below a depth of 600 to 700 ft (183 to 213 m), the water temperature remains a constant 39 °F (4.0 °C). Because of its size and depth Lake Tahoe has never completely frozen over.

Lake Tahoe has a water clarity of about 100 ft (30 m) deep. Factors contributing to (and affecting) its clarity include the following:

  • Around 40 percent of the precipitation that falls into the Lake Tahoe Basin lands directly on the lake.
  • The remaining precipitation drains through granitic soils, which are relatively sterile and create a good filtering system. However, development on the south end of the lake near the Truckee River inlet has affected clarity in that portion.
  • Approximately 85% of the land surrounding Lake Tahoe is protected from development as Nevada or California State land or land under the jurisdiction of the United States National Forest Service. Development is also strictly controlled by the terms of a bi-state compact between California and Nevada.
  • One major grocery chain in the area (Raley's, which has three locations in cities/villages adjacent to the lake) does not offer plastic bags to customers, only paper or reusable bags are offered.

Because of its size and clarity, and the panoramic view of mountains which completely surround it, Lake Tahoe is a popular tourist destination. The largest communities at Lake Tahoe are the twin cities of South Lake Tahoe, California/Stateline, Nevada (the most developed area around the lake; Stateline is heavily developed with no less than four high-rise casinos), Tahoe City, California (northwest) and Incline Village, Nevada (north-northeast).

The above scientific Information on this page was gathered from the Stream and Ground-Water Monitoring Program, Lake Tahoe Basin, Nevada and California (pdf format) fact sheet, also available on the web at