Budget dispute over Tahoe funding

Lake Tahoe at sunset. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg

Deep in Gov. Brown’s 2016-17 budget was a big surprise for Lake Tahoe – the lake was cut out of its expected share of a $475 million environmental pie.

Two years ago, California voters approved Proposition 1, a complex, $7.12 billion water bond package.

“I suppose everybody in the state wants more money to fund their projects.”

As details of the funding were being hammered out, five recipients were identified for that $475 million, which the Legislative Analyst said was intended to “satisfy certain state commitments.”

But when Brown released the 2016-2017 budget in January, Lake Tahoe received zero dollars while the Salton Sea restoration, Central Valley Project, Klamath hydroelectric settlement and San Joaquin River restoration would in sum receive $464.9 million.

“Initially, [we had] some concern,” said Cindy Gustafson, general manager of the Tahoe City Public Utility District. But Gustafson said they met with state Resources Secretary John Laird, who she described as an “outstanding advocate” for Lake Tahoe. She said he reassured them there was more funding for Lake Tahoe in other, competitive pots.

“I suppose everybody in the state wants more money to fund their projects,” said Gustafson, who also is a director of the Tahoe Fund, an environmental group.

“The bonds and the propositions in the past have been very helpful,” she noted. “We would certainly want in future bonds want to make a case about Lake Tahoe.”


Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg

One such eligible funding source is the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, although the department did not fund any of last year’s 12 Tahoe-based proposals, according to Tahoe advocates.

Last year, the governor and Legislature approved a number of related projects. The California Tahoe Conservancy received $15 million, and the Tahoe-jurisdiction Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board was awarded $24.5 million. California has invested $693 million into Tahoe’s Environmental Improvement Program since 1997, greater than the federal government at $593 million and Nevada at $118 million.

The EIP is run by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and was created to improve Tahoe’s famous clarity, maintain recreation areas and restore its forests’ health. In addition to state and federal funding, it has received $328 million from the private sector and $77 million from local governments over the last 19 years. The total $1.8 billion investment in EIP has funded on-going projects and completed more than 450 projects that include water quality, bike trails, and forest management.

The governor will submit his final budget proposal in May, and the state Legislature will have until June 15 to pass a budget.

“The state of California has been a tremendous partner and we’re extremely confident that it will be a good partner going forward,” said TRPA Public Information Officer Tom Lotshaw. “That partnership is as strong as it’s been in a long, long time.”

California and Nevada lawmakers in Congress, meanwhile, are working on passing legislation to provide federal matching funds for Lake Tahoe projects. Without additional funds, some say, the state would be unable to fulfill its obligations if Congress passed the act.

“We are committed to meeting those matches if that bill passes and I think it would not be prudent to appropriate to Tahoe what might go to other things before we know for sure that a bill is passed that requires matches,” Laird testified on March 3 before a Senate hearing.

The governor will submit his final budget proposal in May, and the state Legislature will have until June 15 to pass a budget. The Legislature has discussed Lake Tahoe’s exclusion from this year’s budget proposal in several hearings, including budget subcommittees. The issue is scheduled to be heard next on April 27 at an Assembly budget subcommittee.

If the Legislature passes the budget in its current form, Lake Tahoe could not receive funding in future budgets from this Proposition 1 pool unless the funds given to the other four projects go unused.

“Tahoe continues to be a priority,” Nancy Vogel of the Natural Resources Agency wrote in an email, “but the state obligations pot allows us to make progress on all the other state obligations where we have no other (or very limited) resources, including the Salton Sea and the Klamath River.”

Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America and, with a depth of 1,645 feet, the second deepest lake in the U.S. after Crater Lake.

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