Lake Tahoe (Nevada-California) has been designated as an 'outstanding national water resource' by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in part, for its exceptional clarity. Water clarity in Lake Tahoe, however, has been declining at a rate of about one foot per year for more than 35 years. To decrease the amount of sediment and nutrients delivered to the lake by way of alpine streams, wetlands and stormwater detention basins have been installed at several locations around the lake. Although an improvement in stormwater and snowmelt runoff quality has been measured, the effectiveness of the detention basins for increasing the clarity of Lake Tahoe needs further study. It is possible that poor ground-water quality conditions exist beneath the detention basins and adjacent wetlands and that the presence of the basins has altered ground-water flow paths to nearby streams. A hydrogeochemical and ground-water flow modeling study was done at Cattlemans detention basin, situated adjacent to Cold Creek, a tributary to Lake Tahoe, to determine whether the focusing of storm and snowmelt runoff into a confined area has (1) modified the ground-water flow system beneath the detention basin and affected transport of sediment and nutrients to nearby streams and (2) provided an increased source of solutes which has changed the distribution of nutrients and affected nutrient transport rates beneath the basin.
Results of slug tests and ground-water flow modeling suggest that ground water flows unrestricted northwest across the detention basin through the meadow. The modeling also indicates that seasonal flow patterns and flow direction remain similar from year to year under transient conditions. Model results imply that about 34 percent (0.004 ft3/s) of the total ground water within the model area originates from the detention basin. Of the 0.004 ft3/s, about 45 percent discharges to Cold Creek within the modeled area downstream of the detention basin. The remaining 55 percent of ground water is either consumed by evapotranspiration, is discharged to Cold Creek outside the modeled area downstream of the detention basin, or is discharged directly to Lake Tahoe. Of the 45 percent discharging to Cold Creek, about 9 percent enters directly downstream of the detention basin and 36 percent enters further downstream.
Geochemical and microbial data suggest that a seasonal variation of chemical constituents and microbe population size is present at most wells. The geochemical data also indicate that construction of Cattlemans detention basin has not substantially changed the composition of the ground water in the area. High concentrations of ammonia, iron, and dissolved organic carbon, low concentrations of sulfate and nitrate, and large populations of sulfate-reducing microbes imply that the major geochemical process controlling nutrient concentrations beneath the detention basin is sulfate reduction. High concentrations of total nitrogen indicate that oxidation of organic carbon is a second important geochemical process occurring beneath the basin. The influx of surface runoff during spring 2002 apparently provided sufficient oxidized organic carbon to produce iron-reducing conditions and an increase in reduced iron, sulfate, and iron-reducing microorganisms. The increase in recharge of oxygenated water to the ground water system beneath the basin in future intervals of increased recharge may eventually redistribute nutrients and speed up transport of dissolved nutrients from the ground water system to Cold Creek.