Lakeside view

New plans for Lake Tahoe mean better water and better towns

Owners of Tahoe properties, such as these hidden among the trees in Crystal Bay, may receive construction perks if they participate in the TRPA’s new plans.

Owners of Tahoe properties, such as these hidden among the trees in Crystal Bay, may receive construction perks if they participate in the TRPA’s new plans.

Photo By ashley hennefer

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According to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, reducing the 72 percent of fine sediment polluting Lake Tahoe’s water requires an entire infrastructure overhaul—and as a result, several efforts to improve the Tahoe Basin’s water quality, marshes and regional transportation were approved by Lake Tahoe board members in mid-December. The plans include the Lake Tahoe Regional Plan, which will work with property owners to reduce pollution, and “Mobility 2035,” intended to establish sustainable transportation in Tahoe towns.

“The biggest problem in the basin is pollution from the sediment of storm water,” says Jeff Cowen, community liaison of the TRPA. “[The Lake Tahoe Regional Plan] is a water quality restoration plan that focuses on the lake’s pollutant fine sediment—like the ground-up road sand carried around the basin. What we designed was a plan that would address people to do BMPs [best management practice of erosion].”

To enact BMPs, such as putting in gravel under drip lines beneath a house, the plan will revise “rules that have been on the books since the 1980s,” Cowen says. “The regulatory system in Tahoe is so strong, so robust, but we’re not changing the caps to growth.”

Because many Tahoe properties are older, BMPs are currently happening only “when property owners do a project, remodel a house—when they tear down a house or rebuild a new one.” Thus, the plan is “an incentive to do more remodeling and environmental redevelopment,” Cowen says, by offering perks. For instance, if a property owner has a BMP certificate, they can build a 500-square-feet deck.

“Currently, there’s a limit to land cover on parcels,” says Cowen. “This plan has real economic benefits for property owners.”

Another option to reduce pollution is to remove some of the 8,300 structures built on marshlands. Cowen says that knocking down or moving at least a couple hundred of these will prevent further pollution, and the structures, like old cabins, can be re-purposed in town for community resources.

But tackling the outdated town centers, especially the shopping centers which have “not seen a significant level of investment since the 1950s,” Cowen says, is a much bigger project. To prevent water pollution, vaults must be installed under parking lots and filter the water. This kind of project can cost up to $1 million, and doesn’t ensure that the filtration meets the high infiltration standards.

So the TRPA will approach this redevelopment in a different way, Cowen says, by improving town centers. Moving town centers up, not out—such as increasing building height—will help create denser towns with more sustainable transportation. Mobility 2035—which signifies the year TRPA plans to meet the goal—will create more walking and biking paths connected from town to town.

The regional and transportation plans will go into effect on Feb. 10. Cowen says progress on residential properties may happen in the near future, but other, larger projects will take longer depending on county involvement and public response.

“The town center projects will take further down the line,” he says. “Those require local area plans, smaller scale local area plans that show environmental improvement.”