Tahoe’s future unclear

A white-haired, red-faced former President Bill Clinton told the crowd at the Lake Tahoe Summit in Incline Village that “Tahoe represents the intersection of the two biggest natural challenges we face in this world: climate change and resource depletion.”

Lake Tahoe is getting warmer and losing clarity, according to nearly 100 years of data examined in the recently released “State of the Lake Report” by the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. The amount of snow in Tahoe’s total precipitation has decreased from 52 percent in 1911 to 34 percent in 2006. Fire threat is rising. Many more depressing statistics are in the full report, found online at http://terc.ucdavis.edu/stateofthelake/StateOfTheLake2007.pdf.

It’s with this understanding that state and national leaders convened for the summit’s 10th year on Aug. 17. They urged collaboration among California, Nevada and federal agencies, with an emphasis on thinning the forest for fuels reduction and reducing bureaucratic red tape to get that done.

After outlining millions of dollars spent and work completed for Lake Tahoe in the past decade, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, “Much has been accomplished, but there is still a long way to go, and success—I must be candid—is not certain.” Trees are being killed by drought and bark beetles, and fuels are building up. “There is danger all around,” she said. Acknowledging the State of the Lake findings, she said, “It’s remarkable, and it signals a major change in Tahoe’s climate pattern.” She called for increased funding to treat thousands of acres of state, private and federal lands. Feinstein said there is $10 million in unspent Forest Service dollars. To Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., behind her onstage, she said: “Spend these dollars, Mr. Reid, in our communities. There is no time to waste.” She also called for a “streamlined process” for clearing fuels, to which she received much applause from the Tahoe audience. And she urged residents to use fire-resistant building materials and create defensible space.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said agencies should take a more holistic approach to protecting Lake Tahoe: “Looking at the entire ecosystem and not just Tahoe clarity. Catastrophic fire reverses all that’s been done for erosion control.” He said Tahoe Regional Planning Agency emergency permits should be the rule over the next 10 years. “We have to love this lake so much to get the bureaucracy out of the way—because the funds are there,” he said. Turning to Sen. Feinstein, he added that Nevada will protect its side of the lake by reducing fuels, but that it doesn’t do much good if bureaucracy holds up the process on the California side.

Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey said Tahoe may benefit from a proposed Farm Bill to be heard in September. It involves $2.1 billion in loans for ethanol production of “cellulosic materials,” which include trees used as biomass. “We can convert what’s a threat into a valuable resource—renewable energy.”

Clinton concluded the summit by saying that by preserving places like Lake Tahoe, Americans are also improving the economy. He compared the United States to Denmark and the United Kingdom, where, he said the economy is most like America’s—"open and competitive.” While the U.S. economy is declining, theirs have grown by 50 percent. The difference, he says, is they’re focusing on reducing fossil fuels and while having “zero percent” growth in energy use. “Nevada could become virtually self-sufficient in wind and solar energy and sell it all over the world,” he said. “When you have a place like this, it’s not just for you and your kids and grandkids. It’s for everyone who might ever see it, or even read about it. … We owe the world the preservation of Lake Tahoe.”