Love on the rocks

Will Nevada and California end up in divorce court over Lake Tahoe?

Photo By Ky Plaskon

For years, a few Nevada lawmakers have protested the state's Lake Tahoe management agreement with California, threatening legislation to pull out of the accord to control development there. They were a minority, but now, for the first time, that threat is no longer a line on the sandy shore. The Nevada Legislature has poured a concrete divorce date of Oct. 1, 2015, unless Nevada's demands are met. As that concrete sets, preparations are already underway for the divorce.

All five counties around the lake are developing individual plans for approval by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA). Douglas County is first in line and expects to have its development plans ready within 60 to 90 days.

Also, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore are suing to stop the TRPA from allowing implementation of a new plan. It’s complicated. But as is often the case, it all boils down to money and politics.

Water under the bridge

Let’s start at the south end of the lake. Driving over the ridge reveals the splendor of the basin, mostly trees and that magnificent body of water reflecting the sky. But we can’t see the forest for the trees. According to the Tahoe Transportation District, on an average day there are 200,000 people milling around in that forest. That population nearly matches Reno’s. On a peak day, it’s 400,000, nearly all of Washoe County. This urban forest is not far from gridlock. In fact, just down the hill, the town of Truckee has begun discussions to study gridlock prevention.

“All of a sudden we are a small metropolitan area on two-lane highways all trying to circumnavigate Tahoe,” says Carl Hasty of the Tahoe Transportation District. “That’s a big challenge.”

The reality check continues as we stop at the Truckee River Marsh. Half of the 1,200-acre marsh is developed as the Tahoe Keys. The other half is still marshland, but it’s all dried up as a result of the Keys development, according to the California Tahoe Conservancy, a California state agency. It also reports that more than 75 percent of all the wetlands in Lake Tahoe are gone.

“They are developed because they are flat, and they are easy to build on,” said Upper Truckee Marsh restoration project manager Scott Carroll. “So we have airports, golf courses, subdivisions, casinos and other such kind of developments.”

The loss of marshes is detrimental to the clarity of the lake because they filter out fine particles from the water from urban areas before it gets to the lake. There are a lot of fine particles getting into Tahoe. According to the EPA-approved 2010 Lake Tahoe Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) report, 348,000,000,000,000,000,000 (348 quintillion) particles flow into the lake each year from urban runoff alone. That’s more than a million trillion fine particles, and urban sources add up to more than twice all other sources of fine particles combined.

California’s 68 miles of roads at Lake Tahoe are to blame for a lot of these particles. The report cites highways and municipalities as needing to reduce particles in the water by roughly 70 percent if they want to achieve clarity goals. It will take 65 years to do it. The report calls for more filtration basins, water treatment and vacuuming up sand that is put on the road in the winter.

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To figure out where to focus the runoff cleanup efforts, the US Geological Survey’s Stream and Groundwater Survey for Lake Tahoe in 1997 is a good place to start. It looked at nine spots on the lake over 19 years. Some two-and-a-half tons of sediment per day were coming from Nevada and 11.6 tons from California.

If we follow one of those million trillion particles, we will see what it’s doing to the lake.

We can see 75.3 feet, according to this year’s lake clarity survey from the University of California, Davis. It’s the clearest it’s been in a decade. But wade a little deeper into the university’s data, and you see the clarity has hovered in the 64-to-80 foot range for the past 35 years. Just two years ago, the water was only four inches from its cloudiest average on record. The UC Davis release also reports, “Researchers say the persistent trend is one of declining summer clarity.” The TMDL report also shows a projected trend of clarity decline through 2020, though not as rapid a decline as in the past.

Back in the ’60s clarity was in the 100-foot range. So how did all this happen? Head up to Squaw Valley Resort. Displayed high on the entrance to the resort are the Olympic rings above the eternal torch that burns like the scar it left on the area.

In the fervor leading up to the 1960 Olympics, strip malls and hotels were built at Olympic pace. Many of the hotels are now run-down, as cheap as $25 a night and have a lot of vacancies. This kind of urban sprawl requires more driving, includes more rooftops and parking lots that allow water to pick up sediment and flow unchecked into the lake.

“It’s a 1960s development pattern,” said Steve Frisch of the Sierra Business Council in Truckee. “We need to tear all that stuff out and start over.”

Some say the Olympic degradation of the lake’s environment calls for Olympic revitalization, and that is why a new Olympics is the solution.

“We aren’t as dumb as we were back then,” said Frisch. He says Nevada and California should team up and design a proposal to the International Olympic Committee to repair the damage of the past Olympics with the first sustainable Olympics in history. “The Olympic Committee would absolutely be receptive to that.”

Dammed progress

While visions of embarking on an Olympic sustainability voyage dance in our heads, the reality is that even jumping over a minor puddle has become seemingly insurmountable.

Peter Guilfoyle is a good example of the obstacles. He lives on the Nevada side of Tahoe in a tall house on the side of a hill in the trees. He has been trying to expand his deck just 500 feet for 26 years and can’t because of TRPA development restrictions.

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“I think it is foolish,” he said. “I don’t see what harm it is going to do anybody. It is just a deck. I mean, how is it going to affect the lake or the birds or the beavers or whatever? OK? I don’t understand it.”

Russ Erwin is Guilfoyle’s contractor and has tried to get a lot of projects through the TRPA: “It was difficult to get plans through. It was slow. The timing was just awful as far as getting plans through. They were not honoring their own deadlines and so Nevada said unless we get a more efficient process, it is not fair to our local constituents.”

He said things have changed recently after demand for change grew loud enough and had enough financial and power broker support in 2011 to pass SB271 in the Nevada Legislature. It demands reforms that change the entire development dynamic at the lake or else Nevada would pull out of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The environmental community shuddered and scrambled to blow the dust off their boat and meet in the middle with a development plan that works for business and environmentalists.

“The bill was a fairly reckless way to deal with this problem,” Kyle Davis of the Nevada Conservation League told the Senate Committee on Natural Resources. But, he and other environmentalists in the basin made compromises and a new updated plan was born a year later.

Under the plan, local counties are submitting area plans to the TRPA for approval. The counties could then approve smaller projects and do it faster than the single agency. That also means that some projects would end up in state courts rather than federal. One part of the new plan is aimed at restoring wetlands. The TRPA would create incentives to remove some of the 8,000 properties currently in wetlands and transfer development credits to less sensitive areas. The TRPA has already been doing a similar development transfer credit for 20 years, just not in wetlands.

“It is one of the most successful programs we have, but it has not resulted in restoration of wetlands,” said TRPA’s Jeff Cowen. “What we are saying now is we want to focus it on wetlands.”

Another change is allowing mixed use and more dense development to cut down on paved surfaces. Those changes were approved by the TRPA. But some serious challenges linger.

The 2011 legislation also called for three changes that require the approval of California and Congress. One is changes to TRPA voting requirements: Eight board members for a quorum, a “yes” vote from any nine members can change the regional plan and four members from each state are needed to approve a project instead of five. A second requirement is that the new plan must take into consideration economic changes at the lake and a third requirement is that people who sue over a project must provide the burden of proof that projects they oppose are violating the regional plan. Currently, the people who are sued over a project have to prove that the project meets environmental standards . . . and sued they were. The Friends of the West Shore and nation’s oldest and largest environmental group, the Sierra Club, filed suit against all this in February. That suit will require the TRPA to prove that the plan fits with its environmental mission.

Clearly, all the environmentalists were not in the same boat on this one, and so far, there hasn’t been much public discussion about that. “To me, it is the fascinating issue in journalism that is not getting covered,” said Frisch of the Sierra Business Council. Sitting under his portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, he says this whole decline of the environment in Lake Tahoe and debate about how to fix the lake is ground zero of a rift that has been developing within the environmental community. It is about a “subset of people in the environmental community: modernist verses traditionalist.”

Stormy weather

“There was a lot of talk as we headed in this direction of the lawsuit, [talk] of the need to save the compact,” said Trent Orr of Earth Justice, the non-profit environmental law firm hired by the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore to sue. “I know some of our sister environmental organizations made a political judgment that saving the compact was more important than having the compact adequately enforced. That is kind of a policy and political call, and we think that is wrong.”

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The suit opposes more dense development, and Orr says the new plan will result in more total development in the Basin.

“They are actively encouraging measures that will bring more vehicles into the Basin,” he said. “So unless they can get a handle on restricting vehicle traffic, it is going to get worse. You can’t develop your way out of that sort of problem.”

But Frisch says you can’t sue your way out of the problem either.

“Litigation has a legitimate role in reducing environmental impacts, no doubt about it,” he said. “The issue I have today is that I actually think that what litigation does is that it stops bad things from happening: ’Let’s put up a dam against the flood of industrial revolution and stop it here.’ The problem is that [litigation] doesn’t stop the gradual deterioration of the environment, and what we really need is new systems and new approaches that restore the environment rather than accepting the point that we have degraded the environment, and it is always going to be that way.”

He offered what he sees as the real modernist solution, partnerships to use best-known development practices: “We need to start restoring the environment and creating new economies off of that. We can create a restoration economy that invests in wetland restoration and watershed restoration and looking at forest management and changing the economy so that it meets environmental goals. That is the path that we should be taking.”

He says that denser development is smarter development in terms of environmental impact. But is Lake Tahoe the right place for it? The clock is ticking.

A bill in the Legislature would slow that clock, taking SB271 and its threat to dissolve the compact off the table. That bill is called SB 229.

On April 2, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources tried to wrap their head around all these players and issues. There was testimony from environmentalists on the developers side, citizens asking Nevada to recommit to the compact, questions about the Sierra Club’s lawsuit, but no one from the Sierra Club was there, and the political question of whether California and Congress will approve what Nevada wants in the next two years. (The governor can extend the deadline another two years to 2017 if Congress and California seem to be moving forward.)

Resort representative from R&R Partners Mike Draper told the chairman to let the clock keep ticking and see how it’s working: “I would love to come back to you in two years, and we have actually been able to measure projects against this.”

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club is keeping an eye on new projects as well.

“Certainly the groundwork is laid that if something big and dreadful is going to be approved under this [new plan], the suit would allow us to go to court and say this should be enjoined until the court makes its final decision,” Orr said. “If you have an agency (TRPA) that is ignoring what it is supposed to do and acting contrary to its mission, then the compact (between Nevada and California) is not worth the paper it is written on basically.”

Cowen of the TRPA said that 63 percent of the environmental thresholds in Tahoe are in compliance or moving in the right direction. He also says TRPA has developed successful invasive species and wildfire fire fuel-reduction programs. The compact is worth a lot in terms of those kinds of programs and the money they hatch. Congress is considering the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which would result in a combined investment of $1 billion to the region according to Cowen.

“Lake Tahoe’s ability to attract continuing financial support from the federal government rests almost solely on partnerships and the regional framework,” he said. “Uncertainty breeds uncertainty. So it can be surmised that without the partnership and the compact, continued federal funding is at risk.”

Nevada’s threat to pull out has certainly stirred up debate. “There is a lot to be gained by just listening and looking for those areas of common ground,” said Assemblymember David Bobzien. “No compacts were ever forged by one party by thinking they can overrun the other by the volume of the merits of their argument. Everyone is going to have to do a little bit of listening.”

If you listen closely, you might hear the trickle of beach sand through a crystal clear hour glass, and if the last grain runs through, an era of bi-state cooperation will end. The final grain may rest on the governor’s finger in four years. For now, according to testimony from two Nevada state agencies, he is in favor of keeping that carrot on the stick and seeing where it leads environmentalists, developers, California, Congress and the future of Lake Tahoe.

“The developers, the gaming interests, the environmental community, I have talked to all of them,” Bobzien said. “People are engaged, people are having conversations, whether people are moving off their positions remains to be seen. People have a lot on the line with this.”