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Campus opens Lake Tahoe environmental center

By Kat Kerlin on October 20, 2006 in University News

Download a detailed graphic that explains what researchers, scientists, and the public will be doing at the Tahoe Center and shows all of its energy-efficient features. (PDF)

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Surrounded by University of California-blue sky and gold aspens, more than 550 people joined UC Davis and three other universities here on Oct. 14 to unveil the new heart of learning and discovery in the Lake Tahoe Basin: the Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences.

The $24 million facility is a state-of-the art research laboratory, hands-on public museum and college classroom. It is as Earth-friendly as a building can be and, inside, there is something for everyone:

  • For families looking for fun and learning, there are lively interactive demonstrations of the Tahoe Basin's important ecological challenges.
  • School groups will get a kid-friendly (and teacher-friendly) science curriculum.
  • College students have classes and research opportunities.
  • People trying to build greener homes and workplaces can study working examples of sustainable design, construction and landscaping.
  • And the region's scientists and public employees — who together are charting the course for the Tahoe Basin's long-term health and well being — will fill world-class laboratories and conference rooms where discoveries will be made and shared.

The Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences represents the successful collaboration of UC Davis; Sierra Nevada College, whose campus hosts the new center; the University of Nevada, Reno; and the Desert Research Institute, or DRI.

The Tahoe Center was first conceived by pioneering Tahoe researcher Charles Goldman as a science laboratory where he and his UC Davis colleagues could investigate why beautiful, cobalt blue Lake Tahoe was turning green.

Today, the completed center is that — plus much more. It is a learning center for the students of Sierra Nevada College, Nevada's only nonprofit liberal arts college, and also a public discovery museum, thanks to financial support from the Thomas J. Long Foundation. Indeed, the center's financing is the result of a truly impressive public-private partnership.

"More than 400 individuals, corporations and foundations have supported this project with more than $13 million in donations," said Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef of the Oct. 14 ceremony.

"We embarked on this campaign because we believe Tahoe is one of the world's great environmental treasures," Vanderhoef said. "And we succeeded because so many other people shared that belief. Together, we have built a center where collaborative environmental research and education can help preserve this 'jewel of the Sierra."

"Sierra Nevada College is proud to be the host institution for this extraordinary collaboration between public and private higher education across two states," said Larry Large, interim president of Sierra Nevada College. "All of the stakeholders gain from this partnership — students, researchers and the public.

"We also want to acknowledge the generosity of the Sierra Nevada College Board of Trustees for their contribution to the development and construction of this center. And we thank the United States Congress for their authorization of up to $5 million in support," Large added.

Landmark studies

The major public space in the Tahoe Center for the Environmental Sciences is the $2 million Thomas J. Long Foundation Education Center. Visitors enter a large, bright atrium filled with exhibits that were planned with local residents and schoolteachers. They will learn from a video "virtual researcher" aboard a simulated Lake Tahoe research boat and inside a simulated laboratory. They may measure water clarity, see how sediment and algae affect the lake, and "fly" over the Lake Tahoe Basin and even "swim" through the lake's underwater valleys and mountains.

In classrooms on the first and second floors, Sierra Nevada College students will study environmental science. SNC faculty members also have offices on the second floor.

On the third floor, UC Davis scientists in the Tahoe Environmental Research Center will expand the landmark studies of threats to Lake Tahoe's legendary clarity that Goldman, now the UC Davis Distinguished Professor of Limnology, began 40 years ago.

Also working in the third-floor labs will be scientists from the University of Nevada, Reno, and DRI. Frequently, visiting scientists from around the world will join them in studying the preservation of large lakes.

From the outset, planners of the new Tahoe center insisted that a building dedicated to environmental science be built on sound environmental principles. The architects, Lundahl and Associates of Reno, worked with the UC Davis Division of Architects and Engineers, Turner Construction Co. of Sacramento, and many consulting firms.

The building is expected to use half the energy of a conventionally designed laboratory and office building. Some of its many "green" innovations are:

  • The walls are packed with insulation made from recycled blue jeans.
  • The toilets use rain and snowmelt, saving water and reducing storm water runoff.
  • Water is cooled by night air, then circulated through radiant pipes for air-conditioning. This eliminates the need for energy-consuming compressors, and refrigerants and their associated emissions.
  • Cool and warm air is dispersed by "displacement" ventilation in the office areas and, for the first time in the U.S., energy-efficient "active chilled beam" ventilation in the laboratories.
  • Sunlight is maximized: Exterior "light shelves" send daylight deep into rooms; daylight travels from the large central atrium through offices into corridors; and rooftop photovoltaic panels turn solar energy into electricity.

'World class'

Meanwhile, next spring, UC Davis will begin a $3 million makeover of its historic Fish Hatchery building in Tahoe City that housed UC Davis research programs for decades. These antiquated research labs will be replaced with modern field-preparation labs; equipment lockers; office space; and a small public interpretive center. These improvements were also made possible by private donations.

"It's fantastic to finally be able to move our work from a research setting that is very challenging to one that is world-class," said Geoffrey Schladow, UC Davis professor of civil and environmental engineering, and the director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

"The Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences will be the center for intellectual activity at Lake Tahoe. It will enable us to bring together in one place all the people — biologists, physicists, geologists, planners and the public — needed to understand and restore this beautiful place."

For more information, see: FACT SHEET: Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences and Lake Tahoe.

Media contact(s)

Kat Kerlin, Research news (emphasis on environmental sciences), 530-752-7704,