Enviro Beat: Politics, policy, protections converge on Lake Tahoe

California lawmakers are taking a new look at safeguarding Lake Tahoe, the azure, Alpine jewel that straddles the California-Nevada line and has been a bone of environmental and regulatory contention for decades.

The creation of a bipartisan, two-house committee in the Capitol – the first of its kind on the California side — is intended to force new attention on the lake’s problems and potentially shake loose funds for environmental projects.

“We are appreciative of the spotlight that this would put on the lake. We haven’t turned the corner here at Tahoe in terms of saving the lake and getting it back to 100 feet of clarity,” said Michael Donahoe of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club.

Currently, the average clarity at the 22-mile-long lake, which is about 1,650 feet deep, is about 69.6 feet. The dwindling clarity stems from runoff and sediment linked to development, fire-devastated acreage and recreational usage, among other factors.

Environmentalists in both states are supportive of the California plan.

“They are thrilled that California is doing this. It’s long overdue,” said Phil Caterino, executive director of the Tahoe Divers Conservancy, a volunteer group that regularly probes the lake for debris. The litter, debris and junk that the divers turn up – tires, furniture, tanks, tubs, cans, etc — is remarkable.

“When we do a slide show, people think we fake these pictures. We’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. It (the debris) is kind of like out of sight out of mind,” Caterino said. Other backers include the Lake Tahoe Conservation Trust, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Nature Conservancy.

California’s Joint Committee for the Protection of Lake Tahoe does not yet exist. Pushed by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the legislation to create the eight-member, two-house committee awaits action on the Senate floor after unanimous approval in the Rules Committee. The resolution, SCR 13, also needs Assembly approval, but no signature from the governor.

Thus far, the proposal by Steinberg is receiving bipartisan support, and its backers include two state Republican lawmakers whose districts encompass Lake Tahoe  — Sen. Dave Cox of Fair Oaks and Assemblyman Ted Gaines of Roseville. The committee echoes one already established in Nevada.

“You’ve got the state of Nevada with their own commission. I like the idea of having balance, from California’s perspective,” Gaines said. The balance includes being able to accommodate the business and property interests of his constituents with the environmental needs of the fragile lake, he added.

Development of the California committee caught many by surprise. In part, that’s because development and construction at the lake already is closely regulated by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency – the lake is also a federally declared protected resource — and in part because until now California saw little need to emulate Nevada’s long-established legislative committee.

Nevada’s committee was formed in the mid-1980s. With its cumbersome title – it’s officially called the  “Legislative Committee for the Review and Oversight of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) and the Marlette Lake Water System” — the Nevada committee meets in the interim periods when the Nevada Legislature is in recess.

The committee holds public hearings on high-profile array of issues affecting the lake and water projects, including finances, environmental protections, proposed legislation and the like. For the first time in Nevada, the committee currently is headed by a Las Vegas-area lawmaker.

But unlike the committee envisioned for California, the Nevada panel’s specific mission includes oversight of the 40-year-old TRPA. TRPA is an unusual, powerful government amalgam, formed in a compact between California and Nevada and sanctioned by Congress. TRPA has a 15-member board chosen from both states and it decides such pocketbook issues as planning, construction and permitting. The board often is at the center of contentious debates.

Instead of an adversary to TRPA, at least theoretically, the California committee hopes to direct the public’s attention to Lake Tahoe’s environmental needs. By one estimate, those include some $1.1 billion in environmental improvement projects developed over the past decade.

Currently, none of those projects is included in the $270 million of federal stimulus funding for water projects announced recently by California’s State Water Resources Control Board.  Details remain to be worked out, but the board has a lengthy eligibility procedure and other projects already hope for funding.

But backers of Steinberg’s proposed committee hope that money may be freed up, and that the committee will revitalize the public’s interest in the lake – interest that periodically waxes and wanes.

“We need state, local and federal support to accomplish this, to have emphasis put on the water-quality projects and get some results as soon as possible. We need that focus sooner rather than later,” Donahoe said.

“Where we get into conflict is where somebody wants to take a raw piece of land and build on it,” he added.

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