The duel at the lake

A remarkable political duel is playing out over Lake Tahoe, the azure lake that for four decades has been jointly regulated by the two states that share its spectacular shoreline, California and Nevada.


“A unified regulatory body is extremely important,” said Darcie Goodman Collins, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “The threats here are greater today than they have ever been – climate change, invasive aquatic species – and those kinds of threats require a unified effort.“


But the threads of that partnership have started to unravel.


Nevada has decided to withdraw from the bi-state Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, or TRPA, and likely will leave in two years, unless Nevada lawmakers and the governor reverse course and repeal  the pullout. A bill to do just that was introduced on March 11, authored by a Reno Democrat.


“I can’t believe they’d really leave, but if they do that obviously we’ve got to be ready,” said one Capitol staffer in Sacramento.


The Nevada Legislature and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval approved the bill authorizing Nevada’s departure, a move that stemmed in part from conservative, pro-business forces in the Legislature and long-standing unhappiness with the way development has been regulated at the lake, as well as TRPA’s failure for decades to update a major planning document.


The move to leave the compact arose “from real concerns on the Nevada side about their ability to move forward with job creation,” said Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, whose vast 1st Senate District in California stretches to Oregon on the north and Nevada on the east and includes Lake Tahoe.


“TRPA had a history of being heavy-handed, but more recently in the last couple of years they have made huge strides in providing what I think is a balance  of doing  things with private property while at the same time protecting Lake Tahoe. That’s a very difficult balance, that’s’ a very difficult job,” Gaines said.


The bi-state compact, approved in 1969 with Congress’ blessing and signed by President Richard Nixon, is enforced by TRPA’s 15-member board — seven members from each state, plus a nonvoting presidential appointee.


The board sets rules governing environmental protection and commercial and residential development at the basin of the 1,645-foot-deep lake – a function that places it squarely in the crosshairs of powerful rival political and financial interests and virtually assures controversy.  In regulatory clout, perhaps TRPA’s closest parallel among California agencies is the California Coastal Commission, which has broad authority over commercial and residential development along hundreds of miles of coastline.


TRPA has about a $14.7 million annual budget, a figure that includes fees, reimbursements, grants, special funds and other money. In direct revenue from the states, California provides about $8.2 million and Nevada about $3 million.


Absent any changes, Nevada will make its exit by October 2015, or up to two years later at the discretion of the governor. If Nevadans want to change their minds about leaving TRPA, they’ll need to act quickly: A pullout-repeal bill to stave off the 2015 departure would need to be approved in the current legislative session, because the Nevada Legislature meets only once every two years. Both the governor and the secretary of state of Nevada have indicated their willingness to repeal the pullout, but the crux of the issue is whether the repeal can make it through the Legislature.


The author of the original bill authorizing the pullout, Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, was not available for comment.


Settelmeyer’ bill, SB 271 of 2011, required an update of the lake’s regional development plan, which TRPA approved in December of 2012 over the protests of two of the California board members, who resigned in protest. Even so, the long-delayed updated plan had been seen as a potentially unifying document that could serve to defuse the move to dissolve the bi-state agency.


But the plan drew fire from environmentalists.


The Sierra Club and a group called Friends of the West Shore filed a federal lawsuit on Feb. 11 challenging the updated plan, contending that the document delegated too much authority to local entities, violated the bi-state rule requiring TRPA’s written approval of projects and allowed new, unfettered  development.


“They can’t legally cede that power and leave it to the local governments that failed to protect Tahoe in the past.  There is no reason to believe that cash-strapped local governments would adopt and enforce adequate environmental protection measures in the face of lucrative development proposals,” the Sierra Club said in a written statement.


“This is a wrenching departure from past practice and is not in line with the spirit or law of the bi-state Compact created to protect the lake,” said David von Seggren of the Toiyabe Sierra Club in Nevada.


TRPA’s environmental review of the updated plan, according to the suit, “opens over 300 acres of undeveloped land to ‘resort recreation’ development, expanding Tahoe’s urban boundary; allows up to 3,200 new residential units and 200,000 square feet of new commercial floor area; and allows increased concentration of coverage closer to the Lake in urban core areas – up to 100% land coverage of parcels in designated ‘community centers’ in certain instances.”


The lawsuit, which had been submitted shortly before a procedural deadline, caught political observers by surprise — at least in California — and was filed despite urgings from two U.S. Democratic senators – Dianne Feinstein of California and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Both asked that the environmentalists hold off, fearing that the suit would exacerbate tensions between the states, cripple environmental protections and put new stresses on TRPA.

“This compact … is vital to the preservation of Lake Tahoe,” Reid and Feinstein wrote, according to the Tahoe Daily Tribune, which obtained a copy of the letter. “If either state were to withdraw from the compact, as proposed under existing Nevada state law, the decades-long investment we have collectively made in Lake Tahoe’s restoration would be undermined.” The senators said federal dollars also could be at risk with a break-up.


Meanwhile, California officials began setting up a contingency plan in case the bi-state TRPA is dismantled. The California legislation is authored by the Senate leader and by Sen.  Fran Pavley, an Agoura Hills Democrat, who often takes a lead role in California environmental issues.  About two-thirds of Lake Tahoe is in California.


Their bill, SB 630, would set up a California TRPA with a nine-member board to regulate development on the California side of the lake, the largest alpine lake in North America. Appointees would be drawn from  the boards of supervisors in Placer and El Dorado counties, the Tahoe City Council and members of the public. The Assembly speaker and Senate leader each would have the authority appoint two members.


“California must have a plan in place to protect Lake Tahoe,” Pavley said in the statement. “Due to unilateral action taken by the state of Nevada, the governance structure that has served Lake Tahoe for over four decades is now in jeopardy. We have sought to partner with the state of Nevada on this issue, and still see that as the best way forward.”


On the Nevada side, if the bi-state TRPA is dissolved, that state’s regulatory authority would be handled by a Nevada TRPA, which is poised to be set up under the provisions of the pullout bill.


One yardstick of the impact of development on the lake is the depth of the water’s clarity, which has been tracked annually for at least 45 years.


According to UC Davis scientists who perform the research for TRPA, clarity is measured by the depth at which a 10” white disk, called a Secchi disk, remains visible when lowered beneath the water’s surface. In 1968, the Secchi disk could be seen down to an average of 102.4 feet.


The most recent Secchi reading showed an average of 75.3 feet down, far less clear than the 1968 measurement but clearer than any reading in a decade.


“This is the clearest the water has been in 10 years, according to the scientists who research it,” said TRPA’s Jeff Cowen. “The loss of lake clarity has stopped. The trend isn’t reversing yet – that’s where we need to go – but things are looking good.”

Ed’s Note: John Howard is the editor of Capitol Weekly.

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